Tomson Highway

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Tomson Highway
Tomson Highway delivers the 2018 Margaret Laurence Lecture in Toronto Tomson Highway 2018 Margaret Laurence Lecture CR Kaparica Wiki Commons.jpg
Tomson Highway delivers the 2018 Margaret Laurence Lecture in Toronto
Born (1951-12-06) 6 December 1951 (age 69)
Brochet, Manitoba
OccupationPlaywright, novelist, children's author, pianist
LanguageEnglish, Cree
Alma mater University of Western Ontario
Notable works The Rez Sisters , Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing , Kiss of the Fur Queen
Notable awards Dora Mavor Moore Award, Floyd S. Chalmers Award

Tomson Highway, CM (born 6 December 1951) [1] is an Indigenous Canadian playwright, novelist, and children's author. He is best known for his plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing , both of which won him the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Award. [1]


Highway has also published a novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), which is based on the events that led to his brother René Highway's death of AIDS. [1] He also has the distinction of being the librettist of the first Cree language opera, The Journey or Pimooteewin.


Tomson Highway was born north of Brochet, Manitoba in 1951 [1] to Pelagie Highway, a bead-worker and quilt-maker, and Joe Highway, a caribou hunter and champion dogsled racer. Cree is his first language. He is related to actor/playwright Billy Merasty.When he was six, he was taken from his family and sent to Guy Hill Indian Residential School, returning home only during the summer months until he was fifteen. [2]

Despite the terrible experiences of many children forced to attend residential schools, Highway has said that "Nine of the happiest years of my life I spent it at that school," crediting it with teaching him English and to play piano, and saying that "There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself. I have a thriving international career, and it wouldn't have happened without that school." [2]

He obtained his B.A. in Honours Music in 1975 and his B.A. in English in 1976, both from the University of Western Ontario. [1] While working on his degree, he met playwright James Reaney. [1] For seven years, Highway worked as a social worker on reserves across Canada, and was involved in creating and organizing several indigenous music and arts festivals. [3] Subsequently, he turned the knowledge and experience gained by working in these places into novels and plays that have won him widespread recognition across Canada and around the world. [4]

In 1986, he published the multiple-award-winning play The Rez Sisters . The Rez Sisters became a hit across Canada and went on to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1988. In 1989, he published Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing , which received the distinction of the being the first Canadian play to receive a full production at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre. Both of these plays focus on the native community on a fictional reserve of Wasychigan Hill on Manitoulin Island. The Rez Sisters depicts seven women of the community planning a trip to the "BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD" in Toronto and features a male trickster, called Nanabush; while Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing depicts the men's interest in ice hockey and features a female trickster. Rose , written in 2000, is the third play in the heptalogy, featuring characters from both of the previous plays.

He was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto from 1986 to 1992, [3] as well as De-ba-jeh-mu-jig theatre group in Wikwemikong.

Frustrated with difficulties presented by play production, Highway turned his focus to a novel called Kiss of the Fur Queen . [3] The novel presents an uncompromising portrait of the sexual abuse of Native children in residential schools and its traumatic consequences. Like his plays, Kiss of the Fur Queen won a number of awards and spent several weeks on top of Canadian bestseller lists. [4]

After a hiatus from playwriting, Highway wrote Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout in 2005. Set in 1910, the play revolves around the visit of the "Big Kahoona of Canada" (then Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier) to the Thompson River Valley.

In 2010, Highway re-published The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing in Cree. Highway stated that "the Cree versions [...] are actually the original versions. As it turns out, the original ones that came out 20 years ago were the translation." [5]

His most recent work, The (Post) Mistress , premiered as a cabaret titled Kisageetin in 2009 [6] before being developed into a full musical, which has since been staged across Canada in both English and French versions. [7] A soundtrack album for the play was released in 2014, [8] and garnered a Juno Award nomination for Indigenous Album of the Year at the Juno Awards of 2015. [9]

He currently divides his time between residences in Noelville, Ontario [6] and in France with Raymond Lalonde, his partner of 29 years. [10]

Awards and recognition

Highway has been awarded nine honorary degrees, from Brandon University, the University of Winnipeg, the University of Western Ontario (London), the University of Windsor, Laurentian University (Sudbury, Ontario), Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Ontario), l'Universite de Montreal, University of Manitoba, and the University of Toronto. In addition, he holds two "equivalents" of such honours: from The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and The National Theatre School in Montreal. [4]

In 1994, he was made a member of the Order of Canada. In 1998, Maclean's named him as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history. In 2001, he received a National Indigenous Achievement Award, now the Indspire Awards, in the field of arts and culture.

Although Highway is considered one of Canada's most important playwrights, [1] in recent years both theatre critics and Highway himself have noted a significant gap between his reputation and the relative infrequency of his plays actually being staged by theatre companies. [10] According to Highway, theatres frequently face or perceive difficulty in finding a suitable cast of First Nations actors, but are reluctant to take the risk of casting non-Indigenous performers due to their sensitivity around accusations of cultural appropriation, with the result that the plays are often simply passed over instead. [11] In 2011, director Ken Gass mounted a production of The Rez Sisters at Toronto's Factory Theatre. As part of an ongoing research project into the effects of colour-blind casting on theatre, he staged two readings of the play — one with an exclusively First Nations cast and one with a colour-blind cast of actors from a variety of racial backgrounds — before mounting a full colour-blind stage production. [11]


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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Tomson Highway at The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  2. 1 2 Ostroff, Joshua (15 December 2015). "Tomson Highway Has A Surprisingly Positive Take On Residential Schools". The Huffington Post Canada . Retrieved 4 March 2018.
  3. 1 2 3 Lee Skallerup, Tomson Highway. Athabasca University, February 12, 2015.
  4. 1 2 3 — official web-site
  5. "Tomson Highway releases plays in Cree". CBC News. 8 November 2010.
  6. 1 2 "Composer hopes cabaret will keep audience laughing". Northern Life , July 31, 2009.
  7. "A one-of-a-kind musical". Sudbury Star , October 25, 2012.
  8. "CBC Indigenous's top 10 indigenous music picks for 2014". CBC News, December 31, 2014.
  9. "Tanya Tagaq, Leela Gilday nominated for 2015 Juno Awards". CBC North, January 27, 2015.
  10. 1 2 "In conversation with Tomson Highway". Maclean's , September 30, 2013.[ dead link ]
  11. 1 2 "A new staging of 'The Rez Sisters' defies political correctness". The Globe and Mail , November 9, 2011.
  12. "Tomson Highway, "Floating down Yonge Street"". Canada Writes - CBC Books. 2012-06-21. Retrieved 2012-11-29.