Day 6

No one is stopping Tomson Highway from having a happy Canada Day

Many prominent Indigenous people are declining to celebrate Canada 150, but not Tomson Highway. The Cree writer and musician is a trailblazer, a champion of native languages, a proud Canadian — and the most relentlessly positive person imaginable.

'I had the most positive life in the history of the world. You cannot pull me down"

Tomson Highway performs "A Cree Cabaret" at the Luminato Festival in Toronto, June 2017. (Red Works/Luminato)

by Brent Bambury

​This article was originally published June 30, 2017.

When writer, musician, laureate, professor, curator, polyglot, composer and raconteur Tomson Highway tells you he's happy for Canada on its 150th birthday, you believe him.

Think of the most joyful person you know, triple them and add the Dalai Lama and you begin to approach Tomson Highway's level of rapture.

It can be disconcerting, but there's a steeliness to his commitment.

"You know, somebody once told me to base a life in bitterness and anger is a surefire recipe for failure and unhappiness," Highway tells me on Day 6. "Contrary-wise, to base your life on a foundation of joy and happiness, this is a surefire recipe for success."

Tomson Highway is happy for Canada. Why challenge happiness?

I had the most positive life in the history of the world. You cannot pull me down.- Tomson Highway

Well, Canada 150 has more than a few detractors in the Indigenous community.

Two years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission delivered its devastating report on the legacy of residential schools, there's a growing national reckoning of the country's colonial legacy.

Many Indigenous people have chosen to resist the celebrations. Why is Tomson Highway different?

"Well, I'm not the only one who's different, by the way," Highway tells me this week on Day 6. "There are happy people in the community, and personally it doesn't take much to make me happy. You know, it really doesn't.

"All I had to do is have a heart that beats. And for me, that's reason enough to be happy. The fact that my eyes work, that my ears work, that I can walk on both very perfectly healthy legs, that gives me happiness — a tremendous amount. It's real for me … reason enough to go dancing down the street with joy."

Tomson Highway is a celebrated Cree author, playwright and musician. (Facebook)

He helped build the foundation

As Canada marks its 150th birthday, Indigenous people are rising.

Five years ago, four women from Saskatchewan, Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Nina Wilson, and Sheelah McLean, started a protest aimed at making Indigenous voices more powerful. It bloomed into Idle No More, a national movement driven by social media into street-level activism.

Concurrent with the protest, a tide of native voices was breaking into the mainstream. 

From music and politics: Wab Kinew, Tanya Tagaq, A Tribe Called Red; writers and academics like Billy Ray Belcourt, Tracey Linberg, Drew Hayden Taylor and Hayden King.

A record number of indigenous MPs took seats in the House of Commons, including Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Cindy Blackstock added to the winning streak of native activism in the courts.

There is a new consciousness, urgency and agency to Canada's Indigenous politics.

Highway, born in 1951, inherited a different world.

"You know, my biography says I was born in a snowbank, which is true — a tent pitched in a snow bank. And people think it's so unusual, but it's not. Back then when I was born, that was the lifestyle — almost everybody was born like that. We were nomadic people."

"It's unfortunate that most Canadians don't know that lifestyle existed at one point in time because it's now gone. I'm the last of a breed."

His journey takes him from his birthplace in Northern Manitoba to playing concert halls as a trained pianist and filling theatres with his critically acclaimed plays.

Tomson Highway (CBC)

"I was the first person from my village to finish high school and go to university — this was going back to the late '60s, early '70s. And that was a remarkable achievement for the village."

Highway seems most proud not of his own achievements, but how they contribute to a collective body of Indigenous work.

"I entered the University of Manitoba in the fall of 1970, and there was no such thing as native literature in this country. You could count the number of native writers [and] native books published on the fingers of two hands. I counted 19 books published before 1980. And then around 1980 it just exploded."

Highway was an integral part of that big bang.

His two most famous plays, The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, were first produced in the 1980s and were massively successful. They're foundational works in the growing canon of Canadian Indigenous lit.

"Now we have more than 300 professional native writers in this country, and we've brought in a national voice that is now heard around the world. We've given birth to an industry, to a national literature."

'Be joyful'

Highway's sole novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, is a poetic and magical narrative full of darkness and grace.

From 1998, it tells the story of two Cree brothers destined to be artists, and is unflinching in its depiction of the abuse they suffer in Canada's residential schools. Stricken by guilt and psychological damage, one brother dies of AIDS.

Both Tomson and his brother René​ were sent to residential schools. René Highway, a dancer and choreographer, died of AIDS in 1990.

I asked Tomson Highway to explain how he reconciles his experience in residential schools with his determination to be positive and happy.

"I wasn't taken away from my home," Highway says.

"My father put me on that bush plane with great happiness and joy, in part because he had never gone to school. There were no schools up there back then — and there still aren't.

"He put me proudly on that plane and he knew I was going to go out there and accomplish great things because he wanted me to and he was the best father that ever was."

Tomson Highway doesn't have time to be angry. Deal with it.

"My parents had Grade Zero. Both of them," he explains.

"And so [my father] was determined that his two, three youngest would have an education — the education that he never had. And so I wasn't taken away from my parents' arms, as much as Canadians would like to believe that I was suffering. I haven't suffered at all."

But there is suffering in the novel, which is almost certainly based on his life, although there is also a kind of deliverance when the dying brother says: "Don't mourn me. Be joyful."

When Highway spoke about the book nearly 20 years ago in this interview with CBC's Duncan McCue, there is a different side to him. In the interview, he wants an apology from the Pope for the Catholic Church's role in the abuse.

He was angry.

Not today. I tell him his defense of his education in those institutions could be controversial.

"I don't know," he says. "I'm too busy having a great time to think about negative things. You know, I could die this evening, OK? I may be living my last day, and I'm determined to live this last day in an extraordinary manner.

"For Canadians to hear about a happy Indian, it is like a shock. It shouldn't be heard. It's not right to have that heard. I love that," he continues.

"All I remember is positive things. I had the most positive life in the history of the world. You cannot pull me down."

Patricia Cano (right) performs with Tomson Highway in "A Cree Cabaret" as part of Tributaries at Luminato festival in Toronto. (Red Works/Luminato)

A voice beyond politics

Two days after I spoke with Tomson Highway, a group of activists tried to erect a teepee on Parliament Hill.

They were met by police, and there were arrests. Eventually officials allowed the teepee on the hill and released all nine of the detainees. The teepee will now be part of the Canada Day landscape.

The symbolism of the event seemed significant to me and the conflict was deep. I wondered what Highway would make of this political and cultural moment on the eve of Canada 150, so I reached out to him. How did he view this moment in Indigenous activism?

Here's what he wrote:

"I just focus on my work and do it the best way I know how, as quietly and as humbly as I can. And because that takes so much energy out of me, I have none left for anything else."

"That work? The building of a national literary movement, the building of a powerful and beautiful national voice, hand-in-hand with the most talented, most brilliant people from my community — which, of course, is the native community of this stunning country."

Tomson Highway's new book From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010, will be released by Talonbooks in July 2017.

Tomson Highway on his debut novel

24 years ago
Duration 12:07
A profile of author Tomson Highway, on the publication of his first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen.

To hear the rest of Brent's interview with Tomson Highway, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.