The joking began the instant Tomson Highway, BMus’75, LLD’93, picked up the phone.
“Is this Tomson?” I asked.
“No, this is his servant,” Highway said in a trickster, mocking tone. With a fit of giggles, he continued. “He has seven servants. I am servant number three.”
For a man who laughs a hundred times a day, he was well on his way.
Laughter has been part of Highway’s life since his childhood, a cherished time the renowned playwright and concert pianist recalls in his latest release, Permanent Astonishment. The memoir sweeps readers along from his birth in a snowbank on an island in the sub-Arctic, to his last ride home from residential school in a bush-plane.
Highway writes to honour his late brother Rene, a world-renowned dancer, and in the spirit of his final words: “Don’t mourn me, be joyful.” He also writes to celebrate his parents for giving him an “idyllic life.”
“I had probably one of the most spectacular childhoods in the entire history of childhoods on this planet,” Highway said. Born the eleventh of twelve children in a caribou-hunting Cree family, he experienced “laughter, kindness, wisdom and beauty,” he said. “And love, lots of love. My parents had one of the best marriages; the kind people in Hollywood can only dream about.”
While the family’s home base was in the isolated village of Brochet, in northern Manitoba, theirs was a nomadic life, spent living on the “hundreds of islands” around Reindeer Lake.
“The land is so vast up there,” Highway said. “Most Canadians don’t understand. They’ve never seen the ‘true North strong and free.’ We grew up in this paradise. We had no toys and no electricity, so we had to make our own.”
Highway writes vividly about dogsled rides under starry skies, pet eagles, and the joy of sucking juice from roasted muskrat tails.
Yet life was harsh. Highway’s parents had lost five children before he and Rene were born.
“My father wanted his two youngest to have an easier life,” Highway said. “He didn’t want to lose us to death like he had five of his children. He never had the chance to go to school and wanted us to get a good education.”
It was a hard decision that saw Highway leaving his parents from September until June each year.
“Here in the south, children can walk to public school in 15 minutes, high school in a half an hour and take an hour-long bus ride across the city to the nearest university. In the north, we didn’t have that luxury. The nearest school was about 600 kilometres south of us, so the only way for us to get an education was to be sent away.”
Eager to achieve all his father wanted for him, Highway embraced learning with a passion. “I worked twice as hard as everyone else,” he said. He writes of sneaking textbooks under his pillow at night, waiting until the other boys were asleep to sneak off to the washroom to read.
Positivity over pain
Highway also writes briefly, yet poignantly, about the pain of the abuse he and others experienced at Guy Hill Indian Residential School. He says of its victims, “I hope they write about it, because I can’t. And to those who can’t, I have tried my best to write this story of survival for you.”
Rather than focus on what he lost, Highway said he models his father’s positivity, focusing instead on what he gained, including his fluency in six languages, and the friendships that he made.
“I grew up with 400 brothers and sisters,” he said. “Now how many people can say that?”
But above all, school is also where he saw his first piano.
“You couldn’t pull me away from it,” he said. “I would sneak into the library where the piano was kept, and I would practice until my fingers hurt.” He credits “Sister St. Aramaa” for noticing his talent. Under her tutelage, he reached the grade five Royal Conservatory of Music piano syllabus in just one year.
Each summer, he returned home. By age 11, he worked long days as a professional fisherman with his father on the lake. Before he headed off to high school in Winnipeg, he recalls his father’s words, as his ice-blue fingers pulled fish from the net.
“He told me, ‘Go to that school my son, so you don’t have to do this back-breaking work. You will sit at your desk with your book in front of you and will reach over and turn the page. That will be your life.’”
Grace and gratitude
After studying at the University of Manitoba, Highway came to Western to study piano performance and English. He then became a social worker before going on to write and produce Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, and his bestselling novel Kiss of the Fur Queen. To date, Permanent Astonishment has captured the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction and a nod on the CBC Books‘ top Canadian fiction of 2021 list.
“Fifty-five years later, here I am in my beautiful office, where I have a beautiful piano and a concert grand piano in my living room,” Highway said. “It’s not a book that’s in front of me, it’s a score by Rachmaninoff or Chopin. Those are the pages I turn.”
Highway, who recently turned 70, wrapped up our call with a request.
“I only have 10 years left to live, if I’m lucky, and I have to thank all these people for all the love. I want to thank Western for giving me the gift of education. I had the best piano teacher in my life there; William Aide. I developed extraordinary friendships, I was loved, I was encouraged. What I’d like you to do for me is to go outside, kneel and kiss the ground of Western for me.”
Then, he erupts in laughter.