If you were to ask Dorothy Dickson’s parents where her love of nature started, they would have told an old family joke about a two-year-old.
“They said that when they were cross with me I went out and told the banana tree in the garden about it,” said Dickson.
But the now 84-year-old naturalist and environmentalist considers it a lifelong pursuit that has always been a part of who she is.
“I think I very early got interested in natural history and nature,” said Dickson. “By the time I was 10, I was getting books and wanting to know the names of things. I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested.”
Recently she was honoured by the Red Deer River Naturalists for her work with an Owl Award, which is given to people who have shown a longtime commitment to environmental issue education, unsung support of the group and have advanced the work of the society.
Dickson was born in Australia, but when she was five her family moved to the United Kingdom. She lived there through the Second World War and came to Canada in 1963. She and her husband and two daughters started in Halifax, but moved to London, Ont., in 1965 and then came west, living in Calgary from 1968 to 1985, Innisfail from 1985 to 2003 and then moving to Red Deer, where she has lived ever since.
Within two years of arriving in Calgary, she helped co-found the Calgary Eco-Centre for Environmental Education and Information. She served on the board of the institution until 1983.
One of the first projects she helped the group undertake was introducing recycling to Calgary. In 1972, it was one of the first recycling projects in Canada. Initially, high school students and prison inmates made boxes that were set up at churches and only paper and cardboard were collected. Later, they would expand into glass and metal. It evolved into Canada’s first blue box program, which at the time was a six-month demonstration project with a rented city garbage truck doing pickups. The program wasn’t followed up by the City of Calgary at the time.
A particularly ambitious project during her tenure with the eco-centre was to provide curriculum materials focusing on environmental issues in both science and social studies classes.
“We realized the school curriculum didn’t really mention the environment,” said Dickson. “We decided to get this grant and told the provincial government what we were doing. I don’t think they realized that we were pretty knowledgeable and determined.”
The group, six volunteers and 15 university students, added environmental information to the curriculum for Grades 1 to 12. They wrote up a teacher’s handbook and a student’s workbook for every grade.
“Then we took them to the provincial government,” said Dickson. “They said, ‘Oh yes, those are very nice. We’ll use them when we have time and the money to implement it.’ So we said to heck with them and raised the money.”
Dickson said the Alberta Fish and Game Association supported the move as well, which helped add the environmental angle to the curriculum. Within six months, the curriculum additions were in every classroom in Alberta.
In the early 1970s, she was asked to do a talk about the environment and ecology in a school and she was told she would have a partner for the talks she had never met before.
“We met on the front porch of the school and he had long hair, a T-shirt with slogans on and tattered jeans,” said Dickson. “I was dressed in a very polite business suit. We just stood and looked at each other and roared with laughter.”
Out of that laughter came the realization that environmental issues bridged all ages and economic means.
“We went around pretty well every high school in Calgary and lectured together and it went over really well because I gave my scientific point of view of what it meant to us and he came in with the young people’s point of view,” said Dickson.
When she moved to Innisfail, she immediately joined the Red Deer River Naturalists Society. Through her work in Calgary, she had already met and knew a lot of the members.
In Red Deer, she has been involved in several organizations, including the southeast sector traffic committee, parks planning, environmental management planning and ReThink Red Deer, as well as being involved in the discussion over the Molly Banister Drive Extension.
“I think if you’re a naturalist and you love the wilderness, there comes a time when something you love is being dug up and you look in the mirror and say ‘OK, stop grumbling and do something. What are you going to do about it,’ ” said Dickson.
But as an activist, Dickson said she tries to listen to the other side and present reasonable solutions.
Nature is what has driven, and continues to drive, Dickson to be active and involved.
“It’s just that other species contribute so much to the environment that we are being stupid to spoil their habitat,” said Dickson.
When she first came to Alberta, the first cause Dickson was involved with was planning the development of several national parks. She took part in consultations and hearings on legislation, policy and regulations.
Dickson was the first person to win an environmental Alberta Achievement Award, which was presented to her in 1980 by then premier Peter Lougheed. But she said the Owl Award, her most recent honour, meant a lot to her.
“Yes I’ve had other awards and they may be bigger, but it’s the one your friends and peers give you that mean the most,” said Dickson. “They’re the people who really know you. That’s why the Owl Award meant a lot to me.”
In her acceptance speech, she made two positive points.
“One was that if you’re a naturalist there is so much to learn that you are never bored, you just have to look out the window and you’ll find something interesting to look at,” said Dickson. “The other things is you meet lots of interesting, knowledgeable people.”
Other awards that Dickson has won include the Clean Calgary Annual Award in 1980; Loran L. Goulden Memorial Award in 1997; Douglas H. Plimpton Award and Honourary Lifetime Membership in 1997; Alberta Environmental Protection Award in 1999; Honourary Life Membership of the Federation of Alberta Naturalists in 2002; and the Alberta Wilderness Association’s Wilderness Defenders Award in 2003.
She said many of the parks in Red Deer are because of work by the Red Deer River Naturalists.
“They’ve done a lot to protect the natural history within Red Deer,” said Dickson. “I’ve always admired them for that.”