04/18/2013 11:32 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Senatory's story of racism and sexism inspires Saskatoon playwright

SASKATOON - A Canadian senator is the inspiration behind a play that has premiered in Saskatoon.

"Cafe Daughter" is about a young Chinese-Canadian Cree girl growing up in a small Saskatchewan town.

It's inspired by Senator Lillian Dyck, whose father was a Chinese immigrant who came to Canada in 1912 to start a business.

Dyck says her father was required to pay a $500 "head tax," which would have been the equivalent at the time of two years' salary.

On top of the financial burden, her father also wasn't allowed by law to hire white women because the government didn't want intermarriage between Asians and whites.

That led her father to marrying a Cree woman from Gordon's First Nation who had begun working at his cafe.

"The discriminatory laws actually enabled the marriage," said Dyck. "Had it not been for that, I wouldn't be here, nor would by brother."

Dyck said she was teased and harassed as a child for being Chinese. She said she followed her mother's lead and never let anyone know about her aboriginal heritage.

"To be Indian was something that you didn't want anybody to know because people would really look down on you," she said.

Dyck said the sexism and racism continued through the 1970s while she was studying and working at the University of Saskatchewan.

"I worked as a woman in science, which was a bit of an anomaly in my time and still is," Dyck said.

But the hurdles only helped build her character, and Dyck became the go-to person when it came to equity problems. She said colleagues and students would approach her for help when they thought they were not being treated fairly.

But it wasn't until Dyck was 36 years old and awarded her PhD in biological psychiatry that she came to terms with her heritage.

"I said 'that's it, from here on in I'm letting the world know that I'm not just Chinese, I am also Cree and I'm proud of it.' "

Her advice for young people who are struggling with identity is to find strength in what makes you feel weak.

"Every one of us has the ability to be a leader and to be the best in our field, in however you define success, just don't give up," Dyck said.

Playwright Kenneth Williams used Dyck's story as the basis for his play, which will run at the Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company in Saskatoon until April 28.