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Senator Dyck says goodbye to the Red Chamber
August 24, 2020

The appointment of Senator Lillian Eva Dyck to the Senate marked two firsts for the Red Chamber — she was the first female First Nations senator to be appointed and the first Canadian-born Chinese senator. Representing her home province of Saskatchewan for more than 15 years, Senator Dyck has served as a member of several Senate committees. She was chair of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples from 2015 to 2019. An award-winning scientist, she came to the Senate from the University of Saskatchewan where she worked as a full professor in neuropsychiatry and associate dean of the College of Graduate Studies and Research.

Senator Dyck has been a champion for Canada’s Indigenous peoples inside and outside the Upper Chamber and spent most of her Senate career drawing attention to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

SenCAplus asked her to reflect on her time in the Senate ahead of her retirement in August 2020.

In this article from Focus magazine, Senator Lillian Eva Dyck examines a gel separation of alcohol-metabolizing enzymes from human hair root samples.

You were appointed to the Senate in 2005 on the advice of former prime minister Paul Martin. What was your reaction when you received that phone call?

It was totally unexpected. My assistant took a message and put this sticky note on my computer screen that said, “Call the prime minister!” I thought, good grief, if the prime minister calls, then surely you would interrupt my meeting and call me out. So, I called the prime minister’s office and was told I was being summoned to the Senate and had to let them know immediately if I would accept the offer. I had no clue what the Senate did and I was not politically involved, so it was a big shock.

I thought I was summoned because I’m an Indigenous woman with a PhD and there was no guarantee that if I turned it down that it would go to another Indigenous woman. So, on that basis I decided to accept. And now I’m one of the elders in the Senate — it’s hard to believe.

You hold a PhD in biological psychiatry and before joining the Senate you worked as a neuroscientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Did your science background help your work as a senator?

Absolutely. That’s the only thing that kept me sane. I might not use the knowledge I had about neurochemistry, but it’s the method of thinking that helped me. You think analytically, you don’t jump to conclusions — you do a lot of research into something to get as many perspectives on a problem as you can before you make any conclusions. You try your best to be neutral.

Being a scientist was a big advantage for me because it’s so easy to get drawn into arguments where people get all wound up before the full story is revealed. I’m not a patient person but that kind of scientific thinking helped me remain more grounded.

You oversaw several studies as a longtime member of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Which study would you say you are most proud of?

One that I worked hard on was post-secondary education and trying to equalize education for Indigenous students. That one was from 2011 and it was called Reforming First Nations Education: From Crisis to Hope. It talked about education funding on reserve, which is significantly less than it is for off-reserve schools; you can’t get the same quality of education if you don’t have the same amount of money for teachers and resources.

Senator Dyck speaks with members of the Délı̨nę community in the Northwest Territories on September 11, 2018, during a fact-finding mission with the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples.

It talked about the need for changes to the curriculum, the need for structure, to have some school boards to design the curriculum. For me, the importance of education was paramount because I came from a very poverty-stricken family and the odds were stacked against us. But the more education you get the easier it is, theoretically, to get out of poverty and make a better life for yourself. I was very fortunate to be able to go to a really good high school and there were a couple of my teachers who said to my brother and me, “You really need to go to university if you want to make anything of your lives.” Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t have gone.

The very last report we did was so important, How Did We Get Here? A Concise, Unvarnished Account of the History of the Relationship Between Indigenous Peoples and Canada. I think 99% of Canadians, including myself, did not get the history lessons at any time throughout their education about Indigenous people and the true story of how Canada was colonized, how the Indigenous people here were subjected to the racist Indian Act, how they were abused at residential schools, the pass system, and not being able to vote — there were just so many different unfair things that were imposed on Indigenous peoples. For this report, our committee got input from Indigenous people from across Canada and from experts and scholars. We also visited communities to find out what their side of history was.

It was important to do that because we seem to be on the path toward reconciliation but before you can do that you need to know the history. If you don’t know the history, it’s pretty hard to change discriminatory practices or laws because people don’t know they’re discriminatory. From that perspective, it was important.

That committee was heavily involved in the Youth Indigenize the Senate event, which has been held four times since 2016. What’s your fondest memory of those youth-outreach events?

There is one youth who comes to mind: Kluane Adamek, a youth leader from the first edition of Indigenize the Senate. Now, she’s the Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief. Most of the youth talked about the reality of their lives. Ms. Adamek spoke about how she co-founded a group to support Indigenous youth in the Yukon after losing a close relative to suicide.

Senator Dyck and other members of the Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples meet with Youth Indigenize the Senate participants in Centre Block during the inaugural event on June 21, 2016. Kluane Adamek, of the Kluane First Nation in Yukon Territory, is on the far left.

Getting their viewpoints officially on the record and into Hansard was important. It was also giving them something to add to their resume, to open more doors of opportunity for them. It was giving them a chance to stretch their wings, to know that we value their opinion enough that we want them to be witnesses. It was so inspiring and uplifting to see their accomplishments and know that they were leaders making a difference.

I recall other youth coming to Ottawa from Nunavut to testify about housing policies that were discriminatory because they favoured families over single people. Young people who are starting their post-secondary education are often single and they, too, need to be housed. When they’re trying to get a house through the programs there, they would be at the bottom of the list and that’s not fair.

For me, what stands out is the resilience, dedication and the intelligence of young Indigenous people. Because they are the majority of the Indigenous population in Canada, this bodes well for the future. When you have so many youth now who are standing up and trying to claim what’s rightfully theirs — equal education, housing, rights to be treated fairly — things are going to change.

How did your identity as a Cree woman and a Canadian of Chinese descent shape your work in the Senate? Can you point to some examples?

My identity as a Cree-Chinese Canadian woman was central to my work as a senator. For example, my dad had to pay a head tax in order to come here from China. When I became a senator, I started to look at racist laws that discriminated against Chinese people so I worked with others to get the apology that the federal government delivered in 2006.

Regarding the Cree side of me, I focused especially in the last 10 years on the issue of violence against women and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in particular. I was part of a group here in Saskatoon that was working on it so I continued that work in Ottawa. MMIWG took up a vast amount of my time.

My mother, who was from the George Gordon First Nation, was a residential school survivor. She also lost her status because she married someone who was not a status Indian, so I knew the effects of losing your status. That was a very big advantage in my speeches and my understanding of Bill S-3, An Act to amend the Indian Act. Many senators believed that it wasn’t that important if you lost your status, because these people had no connection to the reserve anyways. But it’s not our fault — the federal government took away our rights to be on the reserve. The reason we don’t have much connection is because the government essentially threw my mom off the reserve and wouldn’t let her or us live there.

Look at the Senate now. It’s an advantage now to be Indigenous when you apply to be a senator. They’re looking for Indigenous senators. Can you imagine that? That really surprised me. In my life, it’s always been a disadvantage.

Senator Dyck participates in the Sisters in Spirit march in Saskatoon on October 4, 2016.

You successfully fought to amend a government bill in 2019 to get courts to consider stiffer penalties in domestic violence cases involving Indigenous women. Why was introducing that amendment so important to you?

I had my own bill — Senate Public Bill S-215, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (sentencing for violent offences against Aboriginal women). The goal was to make it an aggravating factor at sentencing during a trial when the victim of violence was an Indigenous woman. I saw that as not being the only way to end violence against women, but rather as one of the things that needed to change by deterring and denouncing violence against Indigenous women who are more likely to be targeted for violence than other women.

The Criminal Code has the Gladue provision, which means the court must consider the effects of colonization — for example, residential schools and the child welfare system — on an Indigenous offender before sentencing. But if the offender’s victim is also Indigenous, it’s totally unfair to ignore her background of colonization that made her more likely to be a victim, more likely to be murdered, more likely to be raped or trafficked. Is it fair to her that the person who abused her gets special treatment because of the effects of colonization on them and she doesn’t? I saw my bill as a way of balancing the Criminal Code, and fortunately the MMIWG inquiry recommended in its report the implementation of my bill. But it was defeated in the House of Commons before the report was tabled.

When the government introduced Bill C-75, however, I thought maybe I could amend part of that bill to incorporate the objectives of my bill and it worked out really well. When the bill came to the Senate, I sat down with my incredible assistant Shaili Patel and said we need to draft amendments to the intimate partner provisions of this bill. Those amendments were accepted and even expanded by the government, and now they’re part of the Criminal Code. I still can’t believe it. I’m still in shock. To Google the Criminal Code and see those amendments there I think, wow, those are historic changes.

Senator Dyck smiles with longtime seat mate and friend Senator Sandra Lovelace Nicholas in February 2020.

People say the justice system is blind in the sense that it’s neutral. Well, I say it’s blind to the systemic racism against Indigenous people and to the systemic discrimination against women. It’s embedded in the justice system. To actually mention women, and in particular Indigenous women, and to consider their identities essentially as aggravating factors in sentencing in the Criminal Code is remarkable. These changes will offset the systemic racism and sexism in the justice system against women, Indigenous women and other vulnerable people.

What advice would you give to senators who have recently joined the Senate?

You have to be in a group that supports you and will help you with your work, but that allows you to be independent. We’re called to the Senate to be legislators. The main job is to work on legislation and focus on the work, on what you want to do and to not give up. The work I did on MMIWG essentially took me 15 years. It’s about finding your priorities and passions and being very persistent.

What are you looking forward to in your retirement?

Letting go of responsibility. My time will be my own. I can just do with my time what I want to do and spend more time with my friends and my family, as well as enjoying my hobbies. I’m a birder and I really like photographing birds. I just bought myself a new camera a couple of days ago and I’m anxious to test it out.