His mother, Pelagie was a quilt-maker, and bead-worker, who gave birth to 12 children (of whom only 5 survived). He helped his father, Joe, a caribou hunter and world champion dogsled racer, working from dawn to dusk before attending the Guy Hill Indian Residential School from the age of 6 to 15. His life there, which included sexual abuse at the hands of the priests who ran the school, coloured (and tainted) his own life and art and that of his brother, dancer/choreographer René (with whom Tomson often worked and who died of AIDS in 1990). He subsequently went to high school in Winnipeg, living with several white families.
In 1975 he completed his studies in music at the University of Western Ontario. To complete a BA, he took a minor in English and met James Reaney. For the next years he worked for many Indigenous organizations as a social worker which allowed him to travel across the country and to learn about the problems of many of Canada's First Nations.
At age 30, he decided to describe what he saw, and felt that the theatre had traditions that were similar to the First Nations cultural experience (oral history). His first work, The Rez Sisters, catapulted him into renown, and has been performed across the country and abroad (including in French by the Théâtre Populaire du Québec). It won him a Dora Mavor Moore Award as did his next play,Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing which also won the Chalmers Award (and was the first Canadian play given a commercial production at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Other early plays include: Aria (NEPA, 1987, directed by Larry Lewis), New Song...New Dance (NEPA, 1988), The Sage, The Dancer and The Fool (NEPA, 1989, René Highway and the author), Annie and Old Lace (Centaur Theatre, 1989, Jerry Franken).
His musical, Rose, the third play in what Highway envisaged as a cycle of seven "Rez" plays, was produced in January 2000 by the University College Drama Program (affiliated with the University of Toronto).
Highway served on the faculty of the Native Theatre School and, from 1986 to 1992 he was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts(NEPA), an organization dedicated to the promotion of First Nations theatre.
In 1994 he was inducted into the Order of Canada, the first Indigenous writer to be so honoured.
Discouraged by the difficulties attendant on play production, Highway concentrated his efforts on the writing of a novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), which has been acclaimed for its imaginative scope, and its uncompromising portrait of the sexual abuse of First Nations children in residential schools and the traumatic consequences.
He returned to the theatre after a 10-year hiatus with Enestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout, commissioned by Western Canadian Theatre in Kamloops, B.C. and the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society (2004). It is set in 1910, and the "Big Kahoona of Canada" is paying a visit to the Thompson River Valley. Four First Nations women prepare for Laurier's arrival, and witness the erosion of their own society. In 2009, it was performed at Theatre Espace Go in French.
In 2008 Highway wrote the libretto for an opera in Cree: The Journey (Pimooteewin), a musical adaptation of a First Nations myth about the trickster's visit to the land of the dead. It premiered in February 2008 at the St. Lawrence Centre, with music by Montreal-based composer Melissa Hui. The production was directed and choreographed by National Ballet alumnus Michael Greyeyes, and featured soprano Xin Wang, tenor Bud Roach and the Elmer Iseler Singers.
The (Post) Mistress had its world premiere on the main stage of Magnus Theatre on January 27, 2011. Highway set the play to music during his tenure as Playwright-in-Residence in the 2008/2009 season at Magnus Theatre. It subsequently played at the Ode’min Giizis Festival in Peterborough Ontario in 2012 and at Berkeley Street Theatre in Toronto in a co-production by Pleiades Theatre and Théâtre Français de Toronto in French and English (French translation by Highway, who also played the piano). In this one-woman musical tour de force, the post mistress of a small northern town shares the stories told in the letters she handles every day. A samba beat accompanies the tale of a local woman’s passionate but doomed affair with a man from Rio de Janeiro; a rhythmic tango plays as Marie-Louise divulges a friend’s steamy tryst in Argentina. Twelve diverse musical pieces, ranging from Berlin cabaret to French café chanson to smooth bossa nova, accompany the French, Cree, and English libretto.
Although his first language is Cree, Tomson Highway's plays are written in a lyrical, occasionally haunting, English, with cross-cultural allusions and imagery, and an atmosphere of the fantastical.
He has also published three beautifully illustrated children's books written in Cree and English.
Highway has received numerous awards, including six honorary doctorates, and has been writer-in-residence at the Universities of Toronto, Concordia, British Columbia, and Simon Fraser (Kamloops campus). In 2015, he was awarded the Canadian Theatre Critics Association’s biennial Herbert Whittaker-CTCA Award for his long-term contribution to Canadian theatre and his influence on and inspiration for First Nations theatre artists.
He has lectured and performed at institutions across Canada and abroad, and is a much sought-after speaker, having visited over fifty countries to date. He divides his time between a cottage on a lake in the heart of Ojibway country near Sudbury, Ontario, and an apartment in the south of France.
An archival collection on this subject is available at the L.W. Conolly Theatre Archives at the University of Guelph, Ontario.
Profile by Gaetan Charlebois and Anne Nothof
Last updated 2019-10-18