Roy MacGregor on the mystery of Tom Thomson's death

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"Sit down, pour a drink, take a Valium and open up this file."

Those were the words journalist and author Roy MacGregor read immediately before opening an e-mail attachment that would change his life. Staring back at him was an image of the reconstructed face of Tom Thomson, and so began the process of unravelling one of Canada's most enduring mysteries — the suspicious death of the artist in 1917.

MacGregor has had a lifelong fascination with Thomson's life and death. It's a subject he visited in his earlier novel, Canoe Lake. This time, however, MacGregor is sticking to the truth. The resulting book, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, is part love story, part crime-scene investigation and all compelling mystery.

It's almost impossible to separate the life and work of Thomson from the circumstances surrounding his death in Canoe Lake that summer. The coroner declared the official cause of death to be accidental drowning, but how could this happen to such a proficient outdoorsman? Was he drunk? Then there are the rumours surrounding his alleged engagement to Winnie Trainor. Could she have been pregnant? Did a depressed Thomson commit suicide? Or was he pushed? And where is he actually buried?

In 1956, a Canadian judge named William Littler and three friends decided to see for themselves. They grabbed some shovels and started digging up Thomson's original grave-site. Inside, they discovered what they believed could be Thomson's coffin. They also found a skull, with what looked an awful lot like a bullet hole.

The authorities declared the skull belonged to someone else. But suspicions of a cover-up never really died. So when MacGregor suddenly found himself in possession of the only known photograph of the skull, he was incredibly eager to send it off to for forensic study and analysis.

That photograph would become the basis for the face of Tom Thomson that MacGregor found in his e-mail that day.

Recently, MacGregor spoke with host Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio One's The Next Chapter. He shared the fascinating series of events that led to the reopening of one of Canada's most famous cold cases.

Although MacGregor has his own theories about the true cause of Thomson's death, the mystery is still unsolved and remains one of the most well-known aspects of his life and art — that and, of course, his powerful imagery of Northern Ontario.

"I don't pretend to be an art critic or to know anything about art other than that old cliché that I know what I like," MacGregor said in his interview with Shelagh Rogers. "And I love his art. I spent a lot of time in the Canadian wilderness and when I see his paintings, I feel like I'm in a canoe. I feel like I can feel the rushing waters; I can smell the pines. He's good. He's brilliant."

You can hear the complete interview in the clip above.

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