Tomson Highway to explore life through laughter in 2022 CBC Massey Lectures

Cree artist Tomson Highway will deliver this year's CBC Massey Lectures to audiences across Canada in the series's first live event since 2019.

Lectures will take place in 5 cities and be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS this fall

A man laughs while covering his mouth with his hand. A book cover depicts the title, Laughing with the Trickster, with an image of a raven.
In the 2022 Massey Lectures, Cree author Tomson Highway will take audiences on an exhilarating journey through language, creation, humour, sex and gender, and death — and how these ideas are expressed in Indigenous culture. (Sean Howard/House of Anansi Press)

Cree artist Tomson Highway will deliver this year's CBC Massey Lectures to audiences across Canada in the series's first live event since 2019.

In his 2022 CBC Massey lectures, titled Laughing with the Trickster: On Sex, Death and Accordions, Highway brings his signature irreverence to an exploration of five themes central to the human condition: language, creation, sex and gender, humour, and death.

Highway is a performer, playwright and author whose wide-ranging contribution to the arts was recognized by the 2022 Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. His most recent work is Permanent Astonishment, a memoir chronicling the first 15 years of his life.

For the first time since 2019, the lectures will be delivered in person to audiences in five cities across the country: 

  • Sept. 7: Fredericton Playhouse, Fredericton.
  • Sept. 9: D.F. Cook Recital Hall, Memorial University, St. John's.
  • Sept. 14: Broadway Theatre, Saskatoon. 
  • Sept. 16: York Theatre, Vancouver.
  • Sept. 23: Koerner Hall, Toronto. 

Tickets are available for purchase at the respective venues.

Laughing with the Trickster: On Sex, Death and Accordions will be broadcast on CBC Radio's IDEAS and CBC Listen starting Nov. 14, 2022, and is available as a book from House of Anansi Press.

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The CBC Massey Lectures is a partnership between CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College in the University of Toronto.

"I think we really need to have a little bit of laughter in our life this year, and we know that Tomson Highway gives us both joy and also an ability to reflect on our environment," said Nathalie Des Rosiers, principal of Massey College. 

"I think this time more than any is the time for hearing what Tomson has to say," said Semareh Al-Hillal, president of House of Anansi Press.

Uplifting message in trying times

In Laughing with the Trickster, Highway explores some of the fundamental questions of human existence through the lens of Indigenous mythologies, in contrast with the ideas from ancient Greece and Christianity. 

In his first lecture, On Language, Highway argues that language shapes the way we see the world. "Like birdsong, languages make our planet a beautiful place, a fascinating place — indeed, a miraculous place — to live on," he writes. Without language, we are lost creatures in a meaningless existence, Highway says — which is why we tell stories. Language helps us create different mythologies, ways of understanding who we are and why we're here. 

A man leans against a railing. A cityscape is visible behind him, through a large window.
Highway is an award-winning author, playwright and composer. (Jean-Francois Villeneuve/Radio-Canada)

On Creation, the second lecture, asks: "How did the place we know as the universe come into being? What kind of god or angel or combination thereof was responsible for its creation?" For the ancient Greeks, the world was created through sex, and humans were not here to suffer, but to enjoy. Christianity offered something more linear: a beginning, middle and end of things. The Indigenous worldview offers something else, Highway writes: "Those who lived in ages before us — our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-great-grandmothers, our children who have died, our loved ones — they live here with us, still, today, in the very air we breathe."

In On Humour, the third lecture, Highway invites us into the Cree world of scatological, wild laughter. He invokes the Trickster — a central figure in mythologies of many Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. The audience is invited to experience the world through joy and laughter: "Welcome to pleasure; welcome to fun. Welcome to the Trickster and his sense of humour. Welcome to our world of rampant insanity." 

Next up, On Sex and Gender, explores some of the limits monotheism imposes on our understanding of the human body and gender. In the world of Indigenous peoples, Highway writes, "the circle of pantheism has space for any number of genders" — an idea with fresh relevance for understanding our own times.

Highway's fifth and final lecture is On Death. Christianity, he says, offers a dismal vision of the afterlife. The Greeks offered something a bit more positive. But in the Indigenous view of our life after death, Highway writes, when we die, we stay right here on earth, "smack in the middle of that circle that is our garden, the one we were given the responsibility to care for when we came into this world as newborns." 

It's an uplifting and joyous conclusion — a positive message that the Indigenous world views offer ways of seeing and believing that make our journey on earth joyous, hilariously funny and rich in diversity. 

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