Unreserved

How a fateful limo ride led Tom Wilson to his Mohawk roots

Tom Wilson is a Canadian music icon with bands Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse and now, as Lee Harvey Osmond. But uncovering a family secret set him off on a lifelong journey that changed everything.

A family secret changed Tom Wilson's life — and inspired his latest album

Musician and visual artist Tom Wilson. (Marta Hewson)

It was a family secret that almost went to the grave — if not for one fateful ride in a limousine.

Tom Wilson is a Canadian music icon with a decades-long career in bands like Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse and now, as Lee Harvey Osmond.

Wilson grew up on East 36th Street in Hamilton, Ont. His parents were Bunny and George Wilson: George, a tail gunner who lost his eyesight in WWII and Bunny, who Wilson described as "a French-Canadian gal with the temperament of a scalded cat." 

Wilson recalled only family members were ever allowed in their home when he was growing up.

"Bunny and George Wilson were very old, very old to be parents of a young fellow like me," he said. 

Wilson said he always felt that something wasn't quite right. So he asked his parents, who were in their 40s and 50s, a lot of questions growing up. He would ask why they were so much older than his friends' parents, and why he didn't look like them. 

"There are secrets about you that I will take to my grave," Wilson recalled his mother saying when he asked about the day he was born.

As far as Wilson knew, his only connection to Indigenous people was his cousin, Janie, his mother's niece, who had family from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory outside of Montreal.

In his memoir, Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home, Wilson writes about spending his childhood dreaming of becoming a rock star — a dream he eventually realized as the frontman for Junkhouse in the 1990s.

But as he chased that dream, he could not shake the feeling that he did not know himself.

He turned to drugs and alcohol for answers — but even after hitting rock bottom and quitting, he couldn't shake the desire to unravel the web of secrets wrapped around his family history.

Family secrets

In 2014, Wilson was 53 and was on tour. A handler booked to work with him knew his family — she said her grandmother was good friends with Bunny Wilson.

In that conversation, she said something that turned Wilson's world upside down.

"She goes, 'yes, in fact, my grandmother and Bunny were so close that she was there the day you were adopted.'"

In that moment, Wilson said, "everything changed for me."

It couldn't have happened at a better time, he explained. Then 14 years clean and sober, surrounded by the love of his children and grandchildren, Wilson was in a good place in his life.

"At that moment, I swear to God, I thought, 'This is the beginning of a journey.' I felt like this is the first step of a journey that's going to go for the rest of my life and that's exactly what it's been."

There was just one more person to talk to.

Wilson's cousin Janie had always been around. She attended his hockey games and concerts. She and Bunny were very close and after Bunny's death, it was Janie who became the family matriarch. 

Driving her home from a birthday party, Wilson remembered telling her he'd learned that his parents weren't his biological parents. 

"And in that second, [she] said, 'Tom, I'm sorry. I don't know how to tell you this. And I hope you can forgive me, but I'm your mother.'"

All roads lead to Kahnawake

There would be more revelations. He discovered who his father was and that he had sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins that he didn't know about. Finally, Wilson went home, to Kahnawake, to meet them and be embraced by his community.

"I have never felt more welcomed by any community, organization, culture, group of people than I have by the Indigenous community. And you know the Indigenous community, unlike other experiences that I had, does not make me jump through fiery hoops to prove myself. The fact that I'm born into this culture is enough for this culture to embrace me."

As well as his memoir, Wilson created the album, Mohawk, with his current musical project, Lee Harvey Osmond. Wilson said his art reflects his newfound identity and journey to understand what it means to be a Mohawk man.

"Going to the longhouse for the very first time in Kahnawake, these are things that are very deeply moving to me. They mean a lot to me because I've waited a lifetime to be able to stand up and be a Mohawk. And so now it's my job to give that honour and respect and the love that it deserves."

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