Ottawa Writers Festival: The incredible lightness of being Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway. Photo: Sean Howard

Almost 40 years ago something profound began happening in this country. A generation of Indigenous writers, poets, songwriters and playwrights began to raise their voices.

One of the most prominent members of that cohort was Tomson Highway. His plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing were award-winning and celebrated as speaking with fresh new voice.

Today Highway is a member of the Order of Canada and a respected writer, musician and performer with an international career. He is not resting on any laurels though, even after producing a book on what he calls the first wave of Indigenous writing called From Oral to Written (Talonbooks).

“The book is about the birth and development of Indigenous literature. It took so long to find a publisher that it’s now about 40 years, but it does measure the accomplishments over the course of 30 years, from 1980-2010.

“Now we are well into a second wave and production has doubled. I pity the person who tries to measure the next 30 years. I’m not going to do it. It took a tremendous amount of reading and was impossible to include everything, otherwise the book would have been twice as big.”

Highway says he modelled his book after Margaret Atwood’s look at Canadian literature Survival.

He said, in an interview, that his book presents “a selective assessment” of Indigenous literature.

Today, “there are writers who are now just writing for the pleasure of telling stories. That’s where I am at. I’m not ranting. I’m just having a good time.

“That’s what I am into now. I’m just writing fun stories to a large extent. To me being a playwright is kind of an employment program. They create work for an awful lot of people.

“I don’t think much about the past, I don’t have time. To tell you the truth I enough trouble keeping up with my email. I think about the present and the future and both of them look pretty damn exciting.

“There is so much great literature to read, so much great music to listen to, so many beautiful films to watch. And there are so many books to write and so much music to write which I do as well. And there is so much laughter to be enjoyed.”

An example of Highway’s idea of a good time will be an Ottawa Writers Festival appearance on Nov. 16, in partnership with the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

The show will feature some selected readings and a performance of his music with soprano Patricia Cano.

“You know I’m a piano player,” he says. “That was my first ambition. The last teacher I had was the teacher for Glenn Gould. I had the best piano education this country has to offer.”

He says that as a young music student he was obsessed.

“I was a monk. I immersed myself in Bach, Beethoven and Mozart the best of it. I was immersed completely in the best that white culture has to offer. It changed my life. I loved it and I love it today.”

Musical literacy gives wisdom and insight, Highway says.

“It is a kind of intelligence that isn’t  accessible in any other way. We are talking about the physics of sound. Waves. Decibels. The different intensities of sound and levels of sound. The difference between a middle c and a high c. Mathematical equations. That was fascinating for me.”

When you are writing a new song, he says, it is like playing with a Rubik’s Cube.

“I was on the threshold of a musical career when I was 22 but things happened and I didn’t pursue it.”

Highway stills loves classical music. He has many favourites including Chopin and Ravel. “And I have a place in my heart for Scriabin.”

But the music he presents in concerts is his own.

“We do this all over the world.”

He does his work, he says, to honour his parents Pelagie and Joe Highway. Tomson was born in northern Manitoba. His dad was a caribou hunter and champion dogsled racer and his mother was a bead work artist and a quilt maker.

“I had the most extraordinary parents imaginable. They had one of the best marriages I’ve ever heard of, the kind you can only imagine in Hollywood.

“My father was a magnificent man. They were a funny couple. They laughed. There was always positive energy. My dad had a genius for turning disasters into extraordinary situations.

“I think I have inherited that talent. When something bad happens to me I have no time to cry. I just move on go the next challenge. It’s a waste of time to feel sorry for yourself.

“Whatever I do I produce at the highest quality that I am capable of. It’s for them, to thank them for giving me the life that I have had. They are both gone now. I’m second youngest of 12 and by the time I came along they were in their 40s.”

Highway’s father had another knack: he made friends everywhere he went. And Tomson believes he has the same luck.

“Anything that I have accomplished so far, by hook or by crook, people have helped me. I got a tremendous amount of help, not least, from white people who I absolutely adore.

“I’ve been sleeping with one of them for 30 years and I speak several of their languages,” including French, English and passable Spanish along with Cree, his first language.

When you ask Highway what’s next, though, he demurs.

“I am working on something but I don’t like to talk about new projects because there have been so many disasters.

“I have lost a lot of projects over the years. Art is magic and it comes from a magical place. You are dealing with fire, with magic, so you have to take care of it.”

But nor is anything wasted. You can always build on your past, he says.

“You take those piano lessons that you hated so much as a child and you turn that into a positive experience and forge it into a million dollar business.”

Even the struggle is a happy part of the process of making art for Highway.

“One of my favourite Canadian quotations is from Terry Fox. He said ‘It’s not supposed to be easy’. Once you reach the summit, it’s euphoric. But if it’s easy, it’s probably not worth doing. I love climbing that mountain. Literally.”

With that he recounted a recent walk through the night to his cottage south of Sudbury. A bus that was to take him to his cottage failed to show and he started walking arriving home in 8 a.m.

“I enjoyed every single second of that walk. It just happened to be a perfect night. The stars were absolutely magical and I was walking along the French River. The water was like glass and the stars were reflected in the river. Your soul starts singing and you start seeing things.”

He says it was like a vision quest.

Nowadays he cycles around his home in Aylmer, Quebec, where he and his partner are now helping raise two grandchildren. He particularly likes the bicycle path that takes a rider around Gatineau and in Ottawa.

“I have been to 60 countries,” he says, “and when found that bike path I said ‘I’m living here’.”

Happiness is wherever he is it seems.

“Happiness is an act of will power,” Highway says. “You decide to be happy and you will be; you decide to be miserable and you will be. You expect the worst, you’ll get the worst. Expect the best and you’ll get the best.”

Tomson Highway
Where: Centretown United Church, 507 Bank St.
When: Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.