Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Tomson Highway: welcoming people with open arms and legs

Tomson Highway On a cool, breezy Sunday as Niagara on the Lake's main street bustled with tourists shopping and gawking, inside the Royal George Theatre, Tomson Highway adorned in myriad layers of shirt, coat and scarf, seemed to enjoy himself while addressing an attentive and appreciative audience gathered for Shaw's lecture series.

Highway, born in a tent near remote Maria Lake, Manitoba in 1951, was the 11th of 12 children with only 7 surviving childhood. At age six, he was placed in residential school in The Pas. He earned a music degree in 1975 and a B.A. in 1976 from the University of Western Ontario with plans to become a concert pianist. However, writing and lecturing intervened, much to our good fortune.

During his talk, Thompson first described his powerful and formative native geography. He lived in the northwest corner of Manitoba, close to the Dene of the Northwest Territories, the Inuit further north and whites living in the Yukon to the west. He savoured the beauty and solitude of his pristine world of lakes and rivers, a universe not easily accessed. He speaks five languages, native Cree, Dene, English, French and Spanish; however, English is gradually receding as he lives more often in southern France.

Besides being a linguist, Tomson is a remarkable optimist, a self-effacing intellectual with no pretensions yet capable of lightening-quick creative thinking often resulting in a sonorous chuckle to himself, combined with an oral expression, often poetic as well as merely communicative.

Most know him for his first published play, The Rez Sisters (1986) which features a group of native women from the same reserve and their voyage to the "biggest bingo in the world" which he admits was inspired by Michael Tremblay's Les Belles Soeurs. His second play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1989), takes place on the same reserve and features the men. Rose, written in 2000, is the third play in the trilogy.

Thompson described his father as a successful caribou hunter, able also to speak in multi-languages, Cree and Dene both aboriginal yet worlds apart. His mother reputedly spoke so fast in Cree that "when she said the rosary, the beads burst into flames."

Armed with a purposeful collection of bad jokes, inflicted at will and two flip charts set up amongst the Victorian setting for Shaw's Little Foxes, he cleverly depicted two opposing world views, one male dominant and hierarchical; the other female and embracing. Using the example of language, he explained that European languages typically feature a male-dominant structure which corresponds to a hierarchical value system. (His first English sentence learned at age 7 was "See spot run.") In the West, we use personal pronouns in this order: he, she and it. He is dominant over she and it, but in decline which Thompson refers to as the slow death of the dominant male god, being gradually replaced by the ascendant female god.

He outlined the historical subjugation of women in patriarchal societies, observing that thousands of innocent women were tortured and murdered by the Inquisition merely to solidify paternalistic control of all institutions, particularly the church. He rejoiced that the female is now breaking free.

He joked that English language, compared to that of the aboriginal, "is incapable of describing bodily pleasure without getting into trouble. Think for example of welcoming someone with open arms and open legs. The English language exists from our necks up. We are cerebral, not giving way to the joys of the flesh and women were identified as the cause of our suffering by listening to a snake, thus getting us kicked out of Eden."

Tomson now thinks, dreams and writes in French. Last year he spruced up on his Spanish, travelling with his partner and lecturing throughout Chile. His conclusion was apropos given that Jackie Maxwell introduced him. "We are making progress. Twenty years ago, it would be impossible for a female to be Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival."

In 2000, Maclean's Magazine named him as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history. I'm guessing that he would chuckle at that pronouncement especially when living in southern France.

Next Sunday, November 2, 11 a.m. at the Royal George, Shaw presents the last speaker in its Lecture Series: Dr. Samantha Nutt, Founder and Executive Director of War Child Canada with over a decade of experience working in war zones.

Interview Tomson Highway

Rockburn Presents - Tomson Highway

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