A French-Canadian Métis historian in a bilingual country

Many months ago, colleague Peter Bakker asked me to review a new book called “Changing Canadian History: The Life and Works of Olive Patricia Dickason”. Peter and I were originally under the impression that Dr. Dickason had done some scholarship on indigenous languages of Canada, but it turns out that her focus was purely on history. Although initially disappointed to have agreed to review a book with little relation to languages and linguistics, I feel differently now after having read the biography. Olive Dickason’s contributions to reconceptualising Canadian history and recognition of indigenous people in Canada is important and worthy of sharing with Lingoblog readers.

welcome to canada sign
Dickinson grew up in a bilingual country: French and English
Olive Dickason (1924-1989) was a celebrated Canadian historian best known for her groundbreaking work on Aboriginal history and culture. She was born to a French-Canadian father and Métis mother.*  (I was interested to learn that Dickason’s mother had the French surname Côté, which was the surname of my own French Canadian paternal grandmother. So there may be a distant genealogical relation between myself and Dickason.)  Metís are one of three major groups of indigenous people in Canda (the other two groups being Inuit and First Nations), with an estimated population of 600,000 in Canada today. As suggested by the etymology of the name (metís being French for “mixed”, from Latin mixtus), the Metís share a mixed heritage having both European (primarily French) and indigenous ancestors, typically Algonquin or Ojibwe in the East or Saulteaux, Cree, Ojibwe, Nakoda or Dakota/Lakota in the West.
America dau Nord Familha de lengas a larribada deis Europeus
Major First Nations language families in North America
Since this is a blog for linguists, a short language note: Did you know that Canada is home to 70 distinct languages across 12 language families? You can read more about indigenous languages in Canada in this accessible book from the Canadian Language Museum.
Back to Olive Dickason. Like many Metís, Dickason did not grow up exposed to indigenous languages or traditions, but came to embrace her Metís heritage through her later research. Dickason had a childhood marked by poverty and hardship during the Great Depression. Despite this, she earned her bachelor’s degree and enjoyed a successful 24-year career as a reporter, culminating in her time as a journalist for The Globe and Mail (one of Canada’s major newspapers), all while raising her three children.
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Dickason’s magnum opus

Dickason enrolled in graduate school in her 40s and eventually earned her doctorate from the University of Ottawa, becoming one of the first historians to recognize the importance of Indigenous studies. Her most famous book, The Native People of Canada (1982), was an exhaustive examination of the history, life, and culture of Canada’s First Nations. Additionally, she wrote several other books that focused on Indigenous education and rights, such as Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples from Earliest Times (1992).

Dickason’s legacy lies in uncovering and documenting injustices committed against indigenous people in Canada, and in contextualising the cultural context of indigenous history and record-keeping, despite its largely oral (rather than written) tradition. In doing so, Dickason laid the groundwork for new developments in historical research which do not overlook or minimise the contributions and impacts of communities with non-documentary historical traditions.
The biography is the first released on Olive Dickason and is a work of impressive research and scholarship by Darren R. Préfontaine. I appreciated it as a case study for why diverse voices matter so much in driving the course of progress within established institutions and disciplines, especially in areas like academic history which have been forged by people from a vary narrow sample of identities and worldviews (Western, male, European/white, economically privileged).  Part of what makes Dickason’s story impressive, of course, is that she faced an uphill battle at every step of her non-traditional career trajectory: pursuing a career in journalism after having three children, attaining a PhD in her 50s, taking on a legal battle in her 60s to stay in her chosen career rather than face retirement at the peak of her scholarly output. Woman, mother, first-generation scholar, indigenous, middle-aged at time of PhD. In all these respects, Dickason is an outlier and exception to the institutional norms. It occurs to me that only such an outsider could have the perspective and drive needed to so momentously disrupt the traditional telling of Canadian history.


*There is some controversy about Dickason’s Métis heritage raised in the publisher’s and author’s note at the beginning of the work. During Dickason’s career, Metis status was mostly a matter of self-identification, but subsequent genealogical research has not uncovered definitive written evidence for Dickason’s Métis ancestry. Nevertheless, in Dickason’s era, self-identification was regarded as sufficient for community membership, and Dickason’s own identity as a scholar was founded on her self-identification as Métis and her close ties to people in the Metis and indigenous community. Community ties and adoption by First Nations/Métis communities are still regarded as an important criterion for Métis identity, which is something that Dickason did fulfil. It appears, then, that Dickason self-identified as Métis in good faith.



Author: Darren R. Préfontaine
ISBN: 978-1-926795-84-3
Price: $30.00
Page Count: 445 pages

Publisher: Gabriel Dumont Institute, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. 

Rebekah Baglini left North America for Denmark in 2018. Despite her misleading last name, she has primarily French Canadian Ancestry and exactly zero Italian ancestry. She is an adjunkt in the Aarhus University Department of Linguistics, Cognitive Science, and Semiotics where she teaches courses on computational linguistics, Natural Language Processing, semantics and pragmatics.

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