The Cree woman who surprised the NDP
----- Original Message -----
From: RUSSELL DIABO
Sent: Monday, October 10, 2005 9:45 AM
Subject: Fw: The Cree woman who surprised the NDP
----- Original Message -----
To: Russell Diabo
Sent: Monday, October 10, 2005 8:53 AM
Subject: The Cree woman who surprised the NDP
The woman who surprised the NDP
New senator blames her political naiveté for triggering controversy, writes BILL CURRY
By BILL CURRY
Monday, October 10, 2005 Page A4
OTTAWA -- NDP MPs don't know what to do with Lillian Dyck.
The soft-spoken neurochemist from Saskatoon sparked a heated debate among the party's 19 members of Parliament when she became their first senator six months ago.
NDP Leader Jack Layton would not let Ms. Dyck attend the weekly closed-door caucus meetings because party policy calls for the Senate to be abolished. Others questioned her commitment to the party, because she had allowed her membership to lapse.
But through chats at parliamentary events and over a few dinner invitations from MPs, caucus members have learned more about Ms. Dyck, an aboriginal who was not well known outside Saskatchewan when she became a senator. Some are calling for Mr. Layton to make an exception for Ms. Dyck.
"I do think it's important that we do invite progressive voices to the table, so I would welcome Lillian to the table -- unofficially, of course," B.C. MP Jean Crowder said. "I think she could bring a perspective from the Prairies. We currently don't have anybody from Saskatchewan in our caucus."
Ms. Crowder noted that Pierre Ducasse, Mr. Layton's unelected Quebec adviser, and the Canadian Labour Congress are allowed to attend caucus meetings. But Mr. Layton remains adamant that unelected Senators cannot, even though he says Ms. Dyck is a "wonderful individual" who could provide helpful advice.
"The Senate is not part of a democracy," he said. "Our caucus is for elected people."
In an interview in her small Senate office, Ms. Dyck blamed her own political naiveté for triggering the controversy.
Although she had volunteered on some municipal and provincial campaigns, Ms. Dyck, 60, was never involved in federal politics. The cut-and-thrust of Ottawa is still new to her and she admits talking to the media makes her nervous.
"Though I declared myself as an NDP, that was largely out of my own ignorance, not realizing it would create such a big problem," she said.
When the Prime Minister's Office called to offer her the appointment, Ms. Dyck said she was told she could be a Liberal or Independent senator. Ms. Dyck called the Senate clerk's office to ask whether she could choose another party and was told she could.
"Because I had voted NDP for most of my life, not all the time, I thought that made the most sense. Then the newspaper headline read after Mr. Layton made his comments: 'NDP shuns Dyck,' " she said with a laugh. "And I thought, 'Oh, there goes the lovely thing of Saskatchewan aboriginal woman appointed to the Senate, how wonderful.' "
Ms. Dyck said she accepted the appointment to give aboriginal women someone to turn to in Ottawa and hopes to make aboriginal issues her priority in the Senate.
Born of a Chinese immigrant father and a Cree mother, Ms. Dyck was not always proud of her Cree heritage. The family felt it would be better to pretend to be 100-per-cent Chinese to avoid anti-aboriginal racism in Saskatchewan. The family moved from one small Prairie town to the next as her father was repeatedly unsuccessful at running Chinese restaurants.
"There's a hierarchy of racism. Indian is definitely lower than Chinese," she said of the Prairie environment in which she grew up.
It was not until she was 36 and had completed her PhD in biological chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan that she felt it was safe to explore her Cree roots.
Ms. Dyck raised eyebrows among her colleagues in the lab by making a priority of speaking to school groups, particularly young girls, encouraging them to enter careers in science at a time when scientists rarely appeared in public.
She continues to work part-time at the university, testing possible drugs to treat mental illness. She has also completed a study that ruled out a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism among aboriginals.
Her accomplishments earned her a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1999.
But Ms. Dyck, who is divorced and has an adult son, said she believes an aboriginal woman such as herself would still be at a disadvantage today if she ran for public office in Saskatchewan.
"I hate to say this, but Saskatchewan's not noted for equal treatment of the aboriginal population," she said.
With no caucus meetings to attend, Ms. Dyck is largely on her own in the Senate with only one staff person.
Ms. Dyck said several caucus members have told her privately that they would like her to join the caucus, but she has not asked Mr. Layton to reconsider.
"At some point maybe the onus is on me to make that request because I do know there are some that have said they would support my attending caucus," she said.
There is also a possibility that the woman who surprised the NDP by joining them could also surprise them by leaving.
"As I understand it, I can at some point decide that I'll be a Liberal or a Conservative or an Independent. I can change. I don't have to stay NDP forever," she said.
"I can't see myself changing, but if for some reason it looked as though there was a very important issue and I wasn't able to effect any kind of change as an NDP, then it might be wiser to change affiliation."
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