Artist

Photo: Rolline Laporte

Tomson Highway

A full-blooded Cree, Tomson Highway is the proud son of legendary caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer, Joe Highway, and artist-in-her-own-right (as quilt-maker and bead-worker), Pelagie Highway. A registered member of the Barren Lands Indian Band (the village of which is called Brochet, pronounced “Bro-shay”) located in the northwest corner of Manitoba, he writes - these days, for a living -- plays, novels, and music. Having studied music and English literature at the Universities of Manitoba (Winnipeg) and Western Ontario (London), as well as in England, he achieved both his Bachelor of Music Honours (Piano Performance major, 1975) and the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts (English major, 1976), both from “Western.”

Subsequently, for seven years, he immersed himself in the field of Native social work, working with children (and parents) from broken families, with inmates in prisons, with cultural-educational programmes of one kind or another, with other Native social workers and activists, with Native visual artists, writers, healers, Elders, politicians, women, 2-Spirits, etc. For all this, he worked on reserves and in towns and cities across Ontario and, later on, Canada, though based almost always at head offices in Toronto. Then he turned 30 and decided it was time to put all this extraordinary artistic training and this extraordinary Native social work experience together - he started writing plays, music, and, later on, novels.

After many years working in the Toronto theatre industry (and after many plays all of which he both wrote and produced himself), he finally achieved national (and international) recognition in 1986 with his sixth play, the multi-award-winning (and since cult-status/legendary) “THE REZ SISTERS.” This was followed in 1989 by its companion play, the even more successful “DRY LIPS OUGHTA MOVE TO KAPUSKASING,” which not only was nominated for and won numerous awards but was the first Canadian play in the history of Canadian theatre ever to receive a full production and extended run at Toronto’s legendary Royal Alexandra Theatre (1990). In fact, these two plays continue to be produced and/or studied at theatres and universities around the world, including theatres in such centres as New York City (Off-Broadway), Tokyo (in Japanese), Edinburgh, Scotland (the Edinburgh Festival), etc. As well, both have the distinction of being published in anthologies beside such classics of world dramatic literature as “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder, “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, and many others. Other plays/shows of many that he has written both before and after the above-named two are, “THE SAGE, THE DANCER, AND THE FOOL,” “ARIA,” “NEW SONG… NEW DANCE,” “ANNIE AND THE OLD ONE,” “A RIDICULOUS SPECTACLE IN ONE ACT,” “THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF MARY JANE MOSQUITO” (a one-woman cabaret/musical for young audiences), “A TRICKSTER TALE,” and “ROSE” (also a musical, though this one for audiences of all ages, features many characters, is, like “DRY LIPS…,” a companion piece to the afore-mentioned “THE REZ SISTERS,” and is, in fact, the third instalment in a planned seven-play cycle all based on the same set of characters, themes, and settings). Most recent (though not part of what he calls “The Rez Cycle”) is his tragi-comic yarn, “ERNESTINE SHUSWAP GETS HER TROUT” which had its world premiere on the mainstage of the Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, B.C., 24 January 2004.

From 1986 to 1992, he was Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Toronto’s only (at the time) professional Native theatre company and (also at the time) virtually Canada’s only such organization, out of which, over the years, have emerged not only some of Canada’s most accomplished and celebrated Native theatre and film artists but, as well, other professional Native theatre companies. In fact, in large part as a result of the work done at that company in that city at that time (not only by Mr. Highway but by many, many other good, kind, generous, and tireless folk, both Native and non-native), Canada, and Toronto in particular, now can boast the world’s most active and richest (in the cultural sense) Aboriginal theatre industry. We, in other words, invented, from scratch, together, the term (and the concept), “Native show biz!”

In 1998, he published his first novel, “KISS OF THE FUR QUEEN,” which, like his plays, was nominated for several awards and, moreover, spent several weeks on Canadian bestseller lists.

He has, as well, to his credit three children’s books, all published by HarperCollins Canada, in order: “CARIBOU SONG” (2001), “DRAGON FLY KITES” (2002), and “FOX ON THE ICE” (2003). All are written bilingually (in Cree.and English) and beautifully illustrated by Alberta-born, Toronto-based visual artist, Brian Deines (rhymes with “pines”). And, again, all three were short-listed for various prizes.

Among the many awards he has won are the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and Best Production (three wins, five nominations), the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama (two nominations), the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (two wins), the Toronto Arts Award (for outstanding contributions made over the years to the City of Toronto cultural industries, as winner, not as nominee), the Wang Harbourfront International Festival of Authors Award, the Silver Ticket Award (from the Dora Mavor Moore Awards, for outstanding contributions made over the years to the Toronto theatre industry), the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001), the Order of Canada (1994), and others too embarrassingly numerous to list.

He holds five honorary doctorates: from the University of Winnipeg, the University of Brandon, the University of Western Ontario (London), the University of Windsor, and Laurentian University (Sudbury, Ontario). As well, he holds two “equivalents” of such honours: from The Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) and The National Theatre School (Montreal).

He has been Writer-in-Residence at the Universities of Toronto, Concordia (Montréal), British Columbia (Vancouver), and Simon Fraser University (at its Kamloops campus). As well, he has taught (Aboriginal Mythology) at the University of Toronto (University College), at which institution he holds the post of “Adjunct Professor” (meaning that he teaches there whenever he happens to be in that city which, at the very least, is one month a year).

He has lectured, read, and performed at universities, colleges, schools, theatres, bookstores, museums, and other institutions both nation-and-world-wide: in Canada from St. John’s to Victoria and from Whitehorse to Halifax, in many U.S. centres such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Ithaca, N. Y. (Cornell University), Princeton, N.J. (Princeton University), Seattle, in such states as Illinois, Arizona, Alaska, Ohio, the Dakotas, etc., in such overseas cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Mito, Kyoto (all in Japan), Helsinki (Finland), Tartu (Estonia), Venice (Italy), Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Salamanca, Huelva, Alcala de Henares (the last six all in Spain), Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Perth, Sydney, Hobart (the last six all in Australia), Wellington (New Zealand), Taipei (Taiwan), Berlin, Dusseldorf, Mannheim, etc. (the last three all in Germany), in England, Scotland, Greenland, India, Russia, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. In fact, as a world traveller (his hobby - born a nomad, always a nomad), he has, to date, circumnavigated the globe three times. And been to 43 countries (and counting…).

Several film and television documentaries on both his work and his background have been produced and shown internationally over the years, most notable among them being, “Adrienne Clarkson Presents,” “Life and Times” (respectively 1991 and 1997, both for the CBC), and coming up next, “Tomson Highway Gets His Trout” (2003, Getaway Films Inc.).

He speaks fluent Cree (his mother tongue), French, and English. As well, he plays the piano “fluently.” In fact, he enjoys, as frequently as possible, combining his many lectures and readings around the world with performances at the piano, both solo and with singer/musician friends and colleagues (when available), mostly all with songs that he himself has written (music and lyrics) over the years for his own shows, his own cabarets, his own “musicals.” Many of these songs, in fact, are written with Cree lyrics -- Cree jazz? Cree cabaret? Cree Lena Horne? Come and see them! Last, on the subject of language, his work, to date, has been translated into eleven languages.

Born the 11th of 12 children on 6 December 1951 in a tent pitched in a snow bank (literally, his caribou-hunting family crossing the tundra, as always in those days, by dogsled) on a lake in remotest northern Manitoba (where it meets Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories), he now divides his year equally between a cottage on a lake in the heart of French Ontario (just south of Sudbury from whence hails his partner of 20 years) and an apartment on the Mediterranean coast of France not far from Spain, at both of which locales he is currently at work on his second and, as yet untitled, novel.

He thanks anyone and everyone for what, so far, has been an extraordinary “journey,” a magic carpet ride of the very first order.

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