'I'm just so grateful': Lillian Dyck reflects on 15 years in Senate

Former senator Lillian Dyck, who retired on Tuesday after 15 years in the role, sometimes looks up the Criminal Code online to remind herself of what she considers one of her greatest achievements. 

Sask. former senator fought for stiffer penalties for perpetrators of violence against Indigenous women

Outgoing senator Lillian Dyck says fighting for the rights of Indigenous women is among her greatest achievements. (Courtney Markewich/CBC)

Former senator Lillian Dyck, who announced her retirement Monday after 15 years, sometimes looks up the Criminal Code online to remind herself of what she considers one of her greatest achievements. 

The changes to Bill C-75, proposed by Dyck and adopted in 2019, require judges to consider stiffer penalties for violent crimes against Indigenous women. 

"For the first time ever, the Criminal Code will actually make specific reference to the vulnerability of people to violence and makes specific mention of women and, in particular, Indigenous women," said Dyck in an interview with CBC Radio's Morning Edition on Thursday. 

"I Google the Criminal Code and I look at the section and I say 'Yes! There are my amendments.'"

When Dyck was first appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2005 she had four priorities: reducing violence against Indigenous women, improving post-secondary education, fighting discrimination against Chinese Canadians and supporting women in science. 

Canada's first First Nations and Canadian-born Chinese senator

She was the country's first female First Nation's senator, as well as the first Canadian-born Chinese senator. 

"And now, 15 years later, honestly, I'm just so grateful to the office for the opportunity," she said. 

When she was first appointed, Dyck says she naively believed she could represent the NDP. But with the federal NDP's belief in abolishing the Senate, it did not want anyone representing the party in the upper chamber.

At first, Dyck designated herself an independent for the NDP. Later, she joined the Liberal caucus.

In 2019, the Liberal caucus in the Senate was disbanded and its former members, including Dyck, joined a new entity called the Progressive Senate Group.

Dyck announced her resignation Monday after turning 75, which is the age limit for senators in Canada. 

She said the change to the Criminal Code relating to violence against Indigenous women was a highlight. 

Dyck had been fighting for the change to occur for years prior to it being approved in 2019. 

She believes the change will make a difference over time. 

"We know that in Saskatchewan especially, and Manitoba, when the victim of violence is a woman or, in particular, an Indigenous woman, unfortunately, oftentimes her case is not seen as as serious as it should be," said Dyck. 

"And there are multiple examples of that. And, you know, it happens with the men, too, but with the women, it's much more prominent." 

Restoring status to Indigenous women

Another source of pride for Dyck is her work on Bill S-3, which could restore official Indian status for thousands of women who lost their status for marrying non-Indigenous men.

"It was clearly, clearly a case of discrimination against Indian women," she said Thursday. 

Dyck said her calls for a national inquiry and changes to protect Indigenous women were not always well-received by Conservative senators. 

"Whenever I got up to speak or ask a question or two or make comments about this, you know, they would mutter amongst themselves. Sometimes they would get up and kind of look at me and walk out to show me that they really didn't care what I was saying," she said. 

"They'd roll their eyes and so on."

Dyck said she always knew she was standing up for something important. 

The NDP has long called for the Senate to be abolished, and the 2019 disbanding of the Liberal caucus was an attempt by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make the Senate more independent, although critics say it is still a partisan body. 

Considering the future of the Senate

Asked whether she feels the Senate is an important institution for Canada, Dyck said it is an interesting question to which she does not have a good answer. 

"The majority of the provinces have to agree [if it is to be abolished] and some provinces think we need it and some don't," she said.

"But it does serve a very useful purpose and people talk about it being sober second thought, focusing on the senators. 

"But I think what we're missing in that phrase is that it gives the opportunity for Canadians to have a second chance at getting their voices heard."

Dyck said examples of bills that would not have had a second chance at success include those that allowed same sex marriage and medical assistance in dying (MAID).

Before the appointment, Dyck was a neurochemistry professor and research scientist at the University of Saskatchewan.

She is a member of the Gordon First Nation in Saskatchewan. 

With files from CBC Radio's Morning Edition