Three decades of learning, laughing and love with Tom Jackson’s Huron Carole

Tom Jackson. Photo: Craig Koshyk

There was a time in Tom Jackson’s life when he was more familiar with the street than the song.

But, with help, he turned his life around and carved out a career that seems almost unimaginable in its scope. He’s a singer, songwriter and he’s an actor and an activist. But every year, especially during the holiday season, he gives back.

It’s almost too good to be true, except it is true.

The vehicle for his giving back is The Huron Carole Benefit Concert Series and for 32 years it has been helping communities and organizations raise funds to help.

The annual Huron Carole tour is underway and on Dec. 17, it lands in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre for a performance on behalf of Tewegan Housing.

“The Huron Carole was conceived to be a fundraising event for an organization called Council Fire in downtown Toronto. Council Fire was a soup kitchen and an emergency referral centre. It still exists today. They had a shortage of hampers then.

“I asked a woman named Milly Redmond, an Order of Canada recipient, ‘Why don’t we just buy them’.”

They didn’t have the money so it was a stupid question with an obvious answer, he said.

I had a lot of friends who were musicians in Toronto and I called them up and asked them if they would be interested in putting together a concert to raise money for Council Fire.”

The friends said yes and so they needed to call the event something.

This area of southern Ontario was known at one time as Huronia and “knowing the story of the Huron Carol and the history of the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brebuf, we decided to call it the Huron Carole.”

His connection to Council Fire was more direct.

“My life was different then. I had found, through a series of circumstances, that could be different if I chose to help somebody. The feeling that I got from this changed my life and I became addicted to saving lives.”

Before he realized that he liked helping folks however he could, “It was all about me.”

He said he had taken his family and friends and “stuck ’em in a needle and put it in my arm.”

Huron Carole was originally focused between Christmas and New Years but today it is way more than that. Now it’s between New Year’s and Christmas.

“What has happened over the course of time it has taken on its own life that others can participate in.” This is why it exists today, he said.

“It has become a rallying point for organizations” like food banks, women’s shelters, addiction centres and the Salvation Army. This has become a life’s work.

“It’s my oxygen. It is every reason to get up in the morning and move one foot in front of the other and just keep doing it.”

People always ask him why he does it, he said, even the poorest of the poor, holding all their worldly possessions in a green garbage bag and smoking a cigarette butt picked up off the street.

“Without a second thought,” he says, “I tell them that I love them. That’s why I do it. When I walk away from them I leave them with that thought.”

Each Huron Carole concert is connected to a worthy institution located in the community where the event is happening.

The Tewagan organization reached out to Jackson through his website. he has a spot there that invites people to Contact Tom. This actually reaches Jackson’s partner Alison who will often be the point of contact.

Then the Huron Carole team will do some research and also talk with a prospective organization.

“We need to know what they do and what they want to do. In the case of Tewegan, they actually contacted my agent and he contacted us.” Tewegan had suggested a date right at the end of the current tour. Often the logistics of an event such as time and location can affect the decision. The Ottawa show is the last date on a tour that started in Edmonton on Nov. 21.

They will do some stuff in Winnipeg and in Calgary on Christmas Eve before shutting down to the holidays. “We sleep Christmas Day.”

The show’s music director is the guitarist and sax player Tom McKillip. He’s been working with Jackson from 20 years. Also in the lineup is the keyboardist Darryl Havers, John MacArthur Ellis (acoustic/electric guitars, pedal steel, banjo, mandolin and keys), Kirby Barber (bass) and Chris Nordquist on drums.

Over 30 years, the work the Huron Carole does is probably as needed as it was the day it began, but Jackson doesn’t despair about this neverending story.

“There has always been and will always be haves and have nots in our society. Ou job as humans is to bridge the gap and brings those two groups closer together.

“It’s on-going work. I’m never going to be out of a job. Such is the life of a clown. Clowns are never out work and I’m a clown. I am happy to say.

“But I am not happy when I see people who are struggling. But I am happy to help them. That is a resonating theme in my life.

“I work here in Calgary with something called the DOAP team. What we do is rescue people. We are crisis rescue team. We find people in distress, or we are alerted by first responders. We pick them up and take them to a safe place.”

Part of the job is to find them a place where they are comfortable.

Jackson does other things as well, but it’s in the same ballpark as the Huron Carole. He’s an ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross, for example, and often takes part in disaster relief work.

Jackson is part of a generation of Indigenous artists who broke through and were able to have careers in the arts.

Today there is an upswell of Indigenous voices too and he said “I’m thrilled watching young people use their voice and believing in themselves. It is inspiring to see that.”

His work with Huron Carole helps organizations that help poor people and many of those folks are of Indigenous heritage.

From time to time he’ll be asked “Why don’t you do this for Indigenous organizations. Why do this for food banks?

“There is a little trick behind that,” he said. “For me I focus on organizations that help everybody, but the organizations that I approach, the majority of the people they help are in fact First Nations people.” The organizations he helps are hands on. And so is Jackson. To help a little more, Jackson has launched a six part video series called Six Weeks to Christmas. You can see those videos here.

Harmony Concerts presents The Huron Corale
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Dec. 17 at 7 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.