Arts

10 things you should know about Tomson Highway — 2022 Governor General's Performing Arts Award laureate

Among Canada's most decorated artists, Tomson's impact as an Indigenous writer and performer is immeasurable

Among Canada's most decorated artists, Tomson's impact as an Indigenous writer and performer is immeasurable

Tomson Highway. (Sean Howard)

This is part of a series of articles about the 2022 Governor General's Performing Arts Awards laureates

This weekend, Tomson Highway will receive the Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement at the 2022 Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. For this award in particular, Highway is being acknowledged for his work in Canadian theatre, but his creative career is simply too impressive to be reduced to any one category. He is a pianist, songwriter and creator of the libretti for two operas; an author of plays, novels, children's books and non-fiction; a leader in the creation and development in many Indigenous arts festivals. And his life outside of his art is just as extraordinary, as detailed in his Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize-winning 2021 memoir, Permanent Astonishment

"Joy is the very centre of my existence," Highway is quoted as saying on the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards website. "It inspires me, it moves me forward, it makes my spirit dance."

In honour of Highway's latest joyful achievement, we thought we'd run down 10 things about his life and career, with a few notable audio and video clips sprinkled through. 

Author and playwright Tomson Highway joined Tom Power to talk about his new memoir, Permanent Astonishment, which explores the joys of growing up in a Northern Cree community.

He was born the 11th of 12 children on December 6, 1951. As is described on Highway's own website
"He was born in a tent pitched in a snow bank (in one awful hurry!) on an island in a lake in the remotest reaches of northwestern Manitoba where it meets the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and what, since 1999, has been called Nunavut. His caribou-hunting family traversing the tundra, as always in those days, by dogsled, this lake – called Maria (pronounced 'Ma-rye-ah') – is situated some 200 kilometres north of the Indian reserve (Barren Lands) to which he belongs, the village for which is called Brochet ('Bro-shay")." 

He is the son of legendary caribou hunter and world champion dogsled racer, Joe Highway and bead-worker and quilt-maker artist Pelagie Highway. Tomson described their marriage in Permanent Astonishment as a kind "you can only dream of in Hollywood." "They were married for 60 years," Highway says in this 2021 interview with CBC Radio, tied to the release of his memoir. "It was 60 years of love and beautiful, beautiful love. Theirs was the best marriage I've ever seen in my life, bar none.

Thomson worked closely with his brother René Highway, who was also openly gay. René was a dancer and choreographer who passed away from AIDS-related causes in 1990. Highway's 1998 novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, is a fictionalized account of their childhood experiences in a residential school, and the René-inspired character Gabriel is gay — a portrayal that Margaret Atwood praised as "pioneering." After René's death, Highway told Maclean's that his job was to be "twice as joyful...because I promised to be joyful for both of us."

He rose to national and international recognition in 1986 with his sixth play, The Rez Sisters. The play blended a realist view of day-to-day life on a First Nations reserve with elements of camp and Indigenous spirituality — and even boldly included a character grieving the loss of her female lover. He followed it up in 1989 with a companion play, Dry Lips Oughta Move To Kapuskasing, which became 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.

He's written three children's books. Caribou Song (2001), Dragon Fly Kites (2002) and Fox and on the Ice (2003), all written billingually in Cree (his mother tongue) and English, and all illustrated by Toronto-based visual artist Brian Deines. 

He's won a truly staggering amount of awards. The Governor General's Performing Arts Award Highway is about to receive is going to join some good company. On his own website,  Highway jokes that "at one point in his life, his trophy case collapsed from the terrible weight and killed three people." It isn't far outside the realm of possibility, given this is just a short selection: 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 National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001) and the Order of Canada (1994)

He also has ten honorary doctorates. In case those awards haven't already made clear how celebrated Highway has deservedly been, he's received multiple honorary degrees, including from Carleton University, the University of Winnipeg, the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario.

Host Rosanna Deerchild speaks with Tomson Highway, a world-renowned Cree playwright, novelist, and concert pianist, about his new memoir Permanent Astonishment, which just won the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction worth $60,000.

For a nearly a decade he was the creative force behind Native Earth Performing Arts. From 1986 to 1992, he was the Artistic Director of what at the time was Toronto's only professional Indigenous theatre company. He helped turn it into the company it is today. Out of Native Earth has emerged works from artists like Daniel David Moses, Drew Hayden Taylor and Margo Kane. They've now won 9 Dora Mavor Moore Awards and 54 Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations, two Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Awards and the 1997 James Buller Award for Aboriginal Theatre Excellence. 

He's a Superqueero. At least, we here at CBC Arts thought so when we named Highway one of the most important figures in the history of Canadian LGBTQ arts and culture

He lives with his partner of three decades, and they divide their time between Ontario and Québec. One is a cottage on a lake in the heart of Ojibway Ontario just south of Sudbury (where his partner is from) and the second is in Gatineau, They've been existing like this for over a decade, surely with an abundance of joy.

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