Tomson Highway was born in a snowbank on an island in the sub-Arctic, the eleventh of twelve children in a nomadic, caribou-hunting Cree family. When Tomson was six, he was flown south by float plane to attend a residential school.
He lived through the residential school system, faced prejudice, and struggled to have his work recognized. Along the way, he relied on music and art to heal and inspire himself and others around him. Throughout his life, Highway has overcome incredible obstacles to find himself where he is today.
He’s an acclaimed artist making international impact as a playwright, author, musician, and multilingual speaker (Cree, French & English). Highway has also found time to complement these great accomplishments with his work as a social worker, native artistic director, adjunct professor, and world traveller.
He’s author of numerous bestselling books including his first Kiss of the Fur Queen. In 2021, he released Permanent Astonishment: Growing Up in the Land of Snow and Sky, a “memoir offering insights, both hilarious and profound, into the Cree experience of culture, conquest, and survival.” He won the Writers Trust Award for Non-Fiction for this work.
Having studied music and English literature at the Universities of Manitoba (Winnipeg) and Western Ontario (London), as well as in England, he earned both his Bachelor of Music Honours (Piano Performance major) and the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts (English major), both from “Western.”
For years he immersed himself in the field of Native social work, working with children (and parents) from broken families, with inmates in prisons, with cultural-educational programmes of one kind or another, with other Native social workers and activists, with Native visual artists, writers, healers, Elders, politicians, women, 2-Spirits, etc. For all this, he worked on reserves and n urban centres across Ontario and, later on, Canada, though he was based almost always at head offices in Toronto. Then he turned 30 and decided it was time to put all this extraordinary artistic training and this extraordinary Native social work experience together – he started writing music, plays, and, later, novels.
He achieved international recognition with his multi-award-winning play “THE REZ SISTERS.” This was followed by its companion play, the even more successful “DRY LIPS OUGHTA MOVE TO KAPUSKASING,” which not only was nominated for and won numerous awards but was the first Canadian play in the history of Canadian theatre ever to receive a full production and extended run at Toronto’s legendary Royal Alexandra Theatre.
His artistic groundwork gave birth to a nation-wide Native literary movement, a movement which, to this day, continues to play a fundamental role in the advancement of Aboriginal literacy and education right across the country.
He’s been Writer-in-Residence at many Universities, has taught Aboriginal Mythology at the University of Toronto (University College), and held the post of “Adjunct Professor”, and held the post of “Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor” at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba.
He has criss-crossed North America, Europe, and the world with his readings, lectures, performances (at the piano), and teaching engagements at universities, colleges, schools, theatres, nightclubs, concert halls, bookstores, art galleries, and other institutions. In fact, as a world traveller (his hobby – born a nomad, always a nomad), he has, to date, circumnavigated the globe three times. And been to 55 countries (and counting…).
Several film and television documentaries on both his work and his background have been produced for the international market over the years, most notable among them being CBC’s “Adrienne Clarkson Presents,” “Life and Times”, and, “Tomson Highway Gets His Trout” .
He speaks fluent Cree (his mother tongue), French, and English, though his Spanish is fast catching up. As well, having been trained by extraordinary teachers as a classical musician, he plays the piano “fluently.” In fact, he enjoys, as often as he can, combining his many lectures and readings around the world with performances at the piano, both solo and with singer/musician friends and colleagues (when available), mostly all with songs that he himself has written (both music and lyrics) over the years for his own shows, his own cabarets, his own “musicals.” Many of these songs, in fact, are written with Cree lyrics — Cree jazz? Cree cabaret? Cree Kurt Weill? Come and see them! Last, on the subject of language, his work, to date, has been translated into more than ten languages.
A member of the Order of Canada and the recipient of at least 10 honorary doctorates, Highway has shaped the development of aboriginal theatre in both Canada and around the world. He is one of Canada’s foremost aboriginal and creative voices.
Tomson Highway is the proud son of legendary caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer, Joe Highway, and artist-in-her-own-right (as bead-worker and quilt-maker extraordinaire), Pelagie Highway. A full-blood Cree, he is a registered member of the Barren Lands First Nation, the village for which is called Brochet (pronounced “Bro-shay”) and which village is located in northern Manitoba where it meets Saskatchewan and what is now called Nunavut.