Tomson Highway, CM, playwright, novelist, pianist and songwriter (born 6 December 1951 in Brochet, Manitoba).
Tomson Highway, CM, playwright, novelist, pianist and songwriter (born 6 December 1951 in Brochet, Manitoba). A member of the Order of Canada and named in Maclean’s Magazine as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history, Tomson Highway has proved himself one of Canada’s most prominent and influential writers.
Early Life and Career
Tomson Highway was raised in northwest Manitoba, the 11th of 12 children, to a family of nomadic caribou hunters. At the age of six, Highway was taken from his family by the Canadian government and placed in Guy Hill Residential School, which he attended until he was 15. He completed his high school education in Winnipeg, boarding with white families, and later attended the University of Manitoba and the University of Western Ontario, where he studied music and English literature and worked with playwright James Reaney. After graduating in 1976, Highway immersed himself in social work for the next seven years, working on reserves and in urban centres across Ontario. At the age of 30, compelled to record his wide-ranging experience of Aboriginal life and to put his artistic training to use, he began writing plays.
Highway’s early plays, which concern Aboriginal society and dramatize the beauty, durability and optimism of Aboriginal culture, include The Sage, the Dancer and the Fool (1984), A Ridiculous Spectacle in One Act (1985), New Song…New Dance (1986), Aria (1987), and Annie and the Old One (1988).
Highway’s two best-known works, The Rez Sisters (1986), which focuses on the dreams and fears of seven female characters, and its flip-side sequel, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), which features seven males struggling with various preoccupations, both won the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. Set on the fictional reserve of Wasaychigan Hill in Ontario, both plays include a highly theatrical Trickster who is “as pivotal and important a figure in the Native world as Christ is in the realm of Christian mythology.” In contrast to the life-affirming impulse and humour of The Rez Sisters, Dry Lips is a darker, more violent, and disturbing drama, though it offers hope that healing can take place. It was the first Canadian play to receive a full and extended run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Other Highway plays include The Incredible Adventures of Mary Jane Mosquito (1991), Rose (2000), which features characters from The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips, and Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout (2004).
Other Writings and Activities
From 1986 to 1992, Highway was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts, one of Canada’s most prominent Aboriginal theatre companies. His brother René, a dancer and choreographer, was also heavily involved in Native Earth. In 1990, René died of AIDS, a personal loss that triggered Highway to write his autobiographical first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), about two Cree brothers who are removed from their homeland in northern Manitoba and enrolled in a boarding school.. Subjected to abuse, hostility and humiliation, followed by violent confrontations on the racist streets of Winnipeg, the boys suffer a harsh transition to city life. The novel, however, also traces the brothers' artistic destinies and their lifelong triumph over tragedy.
Aside from numerous plays and his novel, Highway has written three children’s books, Caribou Song (2001), Dragonfly Kites (2002), Fox on the Ice (2003), and the critical essay Comparing Mythologies (2003), which explores how Canadian culture is defined by a fusion of Aboriginal and Western mythologies. In 2005, he wrote the libretto for an opera in Cree and English, Pimooteewin: The Journey, an adaptation of an Aboriginal myth about the Trickster’s visit to the land of the dead, which premiered at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto. In 2010, he republished Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing in Cree. Most recently, Highway wrote The (Post) Mistress (2013), a one-woman musical about the post-office clerk of a small Northern Ontario town who shares the stories of the letters she handles every day.
Highway was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1994, the first Aboriginal writer to be included. In 1998, Maclean’s Magazine named him as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history, and in 2001 he received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now called the Indspire Awards) in the field of arts and culture.