Words From a Woman Warrior

A Speech Given By Dr. Lillian Dyck During National Aboriginal Day

Reprinted with permission from
Eagle Feather News - August 1999 - pg.13

This morning when I looked at myself in the mirror, what did I see? What do you see? I saw a middle-aged lady with greying black hair, brown skin, brown eyes. Maybe kind of cute - and Thank goodness, she was smiling! She looked happy.

Today I am pretty much the same person that I was before the NAAF awards ceremony but since then, suddenly I've been thrust into the limelight and overnight I've become a mini celebrity.

Dr. Lillian Dyck
Dr. Lillian Dyck

It's all a bit unnerving and unsettling. I'm used to being a wallflower. In fact, I'm quite comfortable being a wallflower. I've been a biochemist for quite a few years, quietly going about my work and quietly questioning some of the norms and traditions of science. So all of this public attention and invitations to speak at events such as this, is quite a change in pace for me.

When Mr. John Kim Bell, the President and founder of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, asked me what receiving the NAAF award meant to me, I couldn't answer him at first. I replied that it was hard to articulate. It was so overwhelming, so unexpected. Later, he asked me again - and the answer came to me. Receiving the award was like receiving validation after many years of struggle.

Everyone knows that most scientists are white men. I didn't feel that being a woman or a minority woman impeded me too much in the early stages of my career, however, as I've advanced higher and higher up the ranks of my profession, I have felt that I have had to struggle more than normal to be heard and to be treated fairly.

Being a scientist has many rewards and I am grateful for those. Of course, there are also difficulties and in today's world, myself and many of my colleagues at the university are faced with diminished funding and downsizing. Thankfully, there are initiatives currently that will help, probably mostly, the younger generation of researchers.

Regardless of the funding problems in research and regardless of my own personal struggles for equality, I have always felt it is necessary to get more women and more Aboriginals into the study of science, because once there are enough of us, the way we do science and the questions which we ask will change. Our communities then will have an opportunity to use science as a tool to solve our own problems.

There have been times when I felt like giving up and questioned my choice of career. I've asked myself - is it worth it? is the continual struggle worth it? And the answer is always the same. I can't give up.

There is a reason and a purpose for my being where I am that goes beyond me. There's a higher purpose. In any career, the first ones who don't fit the norm - those of us who are minorities in the workplace - women, Aboriginals, physically disabled - we all have barriers to deconstruct.

These barriers are our challenges. By meeting them, we make it easier for our successors - the next generation - those who come after us will have fewer barriers to face and it will be easier for them to take their rightful places wherever they choose to be.

This sense of having a higher purpose has sustained me. I am grateful to the Saskatoon Tribal Council and Peggy Vermette, in particular, for having given me the first opportunity to be involved in the Aboriginal youth career conferences.

When I see all those bright, young faces, I am re-energized and my belief in equality of choice and opportunity is reaffirmed. I am grateful to my teachers in the realm of science - to Mr. John Dyer from my high school days, to my colleagues and to Dr. Alan Boulton, the director of the Neuropsychiatry research unit where I work.

I am grateful to the Elders who have shared their wisdom with me and helped me to learn to love and respect myself - to just be myself - to honour my beautiful, dual heritage. Chinese and Cree. My mother, Eva McNab, was from the Gordon's First Nation. My mom went to a residential school. She left Gordon's as a young woman, and married my dad, Yok Leen Quan, a Chinese cook. She died in 1956 at the age of 36. I was 10 years old.

My only regret is that my mother is not alive today - to share this day with me. She would be astounded to see how much better my life has been than hers. She would be astounded to know how proud I am to be Indian.

When my mother died, she made my brother and I promise not to tell anyone that we were Indian. We were to pretend to be only of Chinese heritage. She wanted to protect us from a racist society. I did not self-identify as an Indian until 1981. [But hey - who was I kidding - look at me!] When I received my Ph.D. in 1981, I came out of the closet so to speak. I figured with this much education, it was finally safe for me to do so. How could anyone look down on me now! I have proved myself by earning the most advanced degree.

Sometimes I think that I'm not a Cree - a real Indian. Some people even say that to me! I never lived on a reserve. And after my mother died, we stopped visiting relatives at Gordon's. We lived in small towns and cities in Saskatchewan and Alberta - where my dad ran the Chinese cafe. I tell people I'm an Urban Indian. A Bill C-31 Indian.

In my wildest dreams, I never imagined that I, who grew up feeling so ashamed of my Indianness, ashamed of who I was, would be standing here today, full of pride of my Indian heritage. I am my mother's daughter. Like her, I am part of the circle of women warriors, each of us in our own way fighting for a better world for our children and our children's children. I am part of a much bigger struggle - for that I am grateful.

Thank you for listening.

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