Tomson Highway’s life story reads like a novel. Born in a tent on the side of a snowbank on the northern Manitoba/Nunavut border, Highway was the 11th of 12 children in a family of nomadic caribou hunters. His mother was an artisan, crafting beadwork and quilts, and his dad was a champion dogsledder. “We grew up as princes of the north,” says Highway, and yet, like so many of his generation (and beyond), at the age of six he was taken from his home and sent to a residential school.
Unlike most survivors of Canada’s residential school system, however, Highway chooses to view his experiences in a positive light. “I have always believed, by the grace of my extraordinary parents, that happiness is an act of personal will.”
Highway will be speaking at the 12th Annual Hurtig Lecture on the Future of Canada on October 19. The Hurtig Lecture series – launched by the Department of Political Science in 2005 in honour of acclaimed publisher, author and celebrated Canadian Mel Hurtig – typically addresses issues pertinent to Canadians, providing and provoking a more inclusive understanding of our collective experiences.
“I have always believed, by the grace of my extraordinary parents, that happiness is an act of personal will.”
Highway’s experiences as a northern Indigenous person, artist and one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history (Maclean’s), perfectly positions him to give the 2017 Hurtig Lecture. This year’s event is particularly relevant, as it falls within the context of Canada’s 150th birthday – a controversial celebration that has received a less than enthusiastic response from many quarters, especially the Indigenous community. And yet, Highway defiantly refuses to succumb to despondency.
“I have been to 60 countries in the world, only to find out what I always knew,” says Highway. “Canada is the most stunning country in the world that, for one thing, is blessed with the richest natural resources. It has a great future.”
While at Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Manitoba, Highway was able to return to his village for two months each summer to explore the “spectacularly beautiful natural landscape that is Canada’s sub-Arctic.” He was the first person in his community to graduate from high school, and he says it was the access to education that meant everything to his parents and to Highway, who later obtained degrees in music and literature from Western University.
In those early years his goals were to survive, and to create. The joy came later. When his brother René Highway succumbed to AIDS, the course of Highway’s life changed. “The last thing he said to me before he slipped into a coma was, ‘Don’t mourn me, be joyful,’ so my job is to be twice as joyful as ordinary people because I promised to be joyful for both of us.”
Though many of his experiences – and the perception of those experiences – differ from those in the Indigenous community, Highway has not shied away from the dark legacy of the residential school system and other forms of institutionalized racism in Canada.
Working as a “native social worker” for seven years brought Highway face-to-face with the traumas endured by individuals, families and inmates on a daily basis. Some of these experiences would later find their expression in his creative life, including in his acclaimed novel Kiss of the Fur Queen – a staple of Indigenous studies and literature classes across Canada, and many award-winning plays.
“My job is to be twice as joyful as ordinary people because I promised to be joyful for both of us.”
A writer who writes every day, often alternating between multiple projects – including several bilingual (Cree-English) children’s picture books – Highway’s most recent publication is From Oral to Written: A Celebration of Indigenous Literature in Canada, 1980-2010. What surprised him most about this project was the sheer amount of creative output there was, and still is, in the community.
“Education, that’s the key,” he says. “Everything else is spare change. Literature, writing our own stories, in our own languages . . . and getting rid of those [expletive] television sets!”
All are welcome at the 12th Annual Hurtig Lecture on the Future of Canada as Tomson Highway discusses “The North,” on Thursday, October 19 at 7-9 p.m. in 1-440 Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Science (CCIS).
Seating is limited. Please register here.