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Q and A with retired Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck

Click to play video 'Q and A with retired Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck' Q and A with retired Saskatchewan Senator Lillian Dyck
WATCH Q&A: Lillian Dyck, the first Indigenous woman and the first Chinese-Canadian senator, reflects back on her time in the Senate.

Lillian Dyck was the first First Nations woman on the Canadian Senate and the first Chinese Canadian-born senator.

She announced her retirement Monday on her 75th birthday, after working as a senator for the past 15 years.

Global News spoke to Dyck about her childhood, career and retirement.

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GLOBAL NEWS: Taking a look back a few years, what was it like growing up in Saskatchewan?

LILLIAN DYCK: That’s a long time ago, but I was born in North Battleford and we lived there until I was six. My dad, who was a Chinese Canadian, ran the Victory Café in North Battleford. We moved from there to a number of small towns in Saskatchewan and in every one of them he would be running the Chinese café. In the Prairies, the sign of a small town is the vibrant Chinese café, which is kind of like the social hub of that place where everybody gathers and eats the so-called exotic food. We were the only Chinese family and there were no Indigenous families around, so the communities were mostly of European descent.

GN: As you got older, education became an important part of your life. What did you take at the University of Saskatchewan?

LD: I was very fortunate I went to a really good high school in Swift Current and all the teachers there encouraged my brother and I to go to university. I started off in chemistry, then switched to biochemistry and then went into biological psychiatry which is neurochemistry. I worked at the university for many years in the department of psychiatry in the research unit.

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GN: You took an interesting turn in your career becoming a senator, what was that transition like going from science to working in the senate?

LD: It was totally unexpected. I got a call out of the blue one day and a little note on my computer saying to call the prime minister. His assistant told me they were calling me to the senate. It was an opportunity and I thought it was important to have an Indigenous woman in the senate.

Click to play video 'Senator Lillian Dyck receiving Saskatoon YWCA Women of Distinction lifetime award' Senator Lillian Dyck receiving Saskatoon YWCA Women of Distinction lifetime award
Senator Lillian Dyck receiving Saskatoon YWCA Women of Distinction lifetime award

GN: What was your experience like being an Indigenous woman working in the senate?

LD: Initially, it was a bit frustrating because I worked on the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. When I first got there it was just coming into the public consciousness, so there was a lot of that push to make sure that it got on the agenda. We’ve had the national inquiry and in my last couple of years, I’ve been able to make some really important legislative changes to help with that issue.

GN: Do you think your background has helped you deal with different issues in the senate?

LD: Training as a scientist was very helpful because that trains you to be analytical — to look at a problem, to sort it out, to figure out solutions and to do your best to be objective and neutral. My background as a woman gave me the interest and passion to go forward. My background as an Indigenous woman of course fuelled my spirit. Often times I would think of my Cree mother from the Gordon First Nation. She was a residential school survivor and she accomplished a lot in her short life. That gave me the real spirit when things got tough.

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GN: Moving into retirement, what kinds of things do you hope continue in the senate now that you won’t be there?

LD: Diversity in the senate is really important because that starts to impact the systemic racism and systemic sexism in our laws. You need those people from different communities other than white communities to be there, to carry it forward and to really understand what’s going on because they’ve experienced it.

GN: Do you have anything planned for retirement?

LD: I plan to spend a lot more time sitting on my deck, putting my feet up, enjoying a soft drink, watching birds, taking photographs and having freedom. On my birthday cake I put, ‘Freedom 75’. I love Saskatchewan. When I meet people, even when I’m out at the dog park, they recognize me. I thought, “right, I am your senator”. But now it will be, “I was your senator.”