The First Nations playwright talks about women, God, music, and the joys of same-sex marriage.
There’s no disputing that Tomson Highway is Canada’s best-known First Nations playwright. However, he might also be one of Canada’s foremost feminist playwrights. Apart from one notable exception—the all-male Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing—Highway’s plays have been dominated by strong women, from The Rez Sisters and Rose to Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout and, most recently, his Juno Award-nominated one-woman musical The (Post) Mistress.
“Are you telling me to stop it?” Highway says, laughing, when his preference for female characters is pointed out to him. He’s on the phone from Saskatoon, where The (Post) Mistress recently played at Persephone Theatre. But he’ll be in Toronto this weekend to showcase his tuneful side with a talent-packed variety show at Hugh’s Room in Roncesvalles.
Dubbed Songs in the Key of Cree, the show features Highway—who is also a songwriter and classically trained pianist—performing his eclectic repertoire with guests including Micah Barnes, Patricia Cano, Teresa Castonguay, Laura Hubert, and Jani Lauzon. Marcus Ali will be blowing sax and John Alcorn is acting as musical director and co-keyboardist.
“I just adore him,” Highway says, at the mention of Alcorn’s name. “If you need a headline for your piece, make it: ‘Tomson Highway Adores John Alcorn.’ I’m thrilled to be working with him again.”
Duly noted. But getting back to the women… Highway agrees writing about them has been a lifelong obsession; but it has nothing to do with modern social movements and everything to do with his ancestral beliefs. “Pantheism, which is the basis of native mythology and cosmology, sees God in nature,” he explains. “And the centre of native cosmology, certainly in Cree culture, is feminine. And so I write obsessively about that.”
For Highway, the root of our problems is monotheism, the belief in one God, particularly since that God is perceived to be male. “It’s a patriarchal superstructure and it leads to fascism: ‘If you don’t believe in my God, I’ll kill you, I’ll destroy you.'” When the monotheistic God came to the Americas with the European explorers, he arrived without a woman, Highway says. “Why did he come alone? Where was his wife? Where was his girlfriend? And the answer to the question is that she was here all the time. Our father art in heaven, but our mother is here on this planet. And if we don’t recognize that, and that we need to preserve this planet, we’re doomed. There will be no point having grandchildren. They’ll have nothing to inherit but a scorched planet. Those forest fires you hear of in the north? They’ll finally arrive in Toronto and burn the whole city down. That’s the brutal truth.”
Somehow we’ve gone from talking women to talking climate change, but Highway—who turned 64 on December 6—is an elder with much wisdom to impart. He airs his thoughts regularly on the lecture circuit, where he’ll talk about books, theatre, mythology, music, racial diversity, and multilingualism—the last the subject of A Tale of Monstrous Extravagance, his 2014 Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture for the Canadian Literature Centre. He also has outspoken—and surprising—views on residential schools. Although he was among the first to write about the physical and sexual abuse endured by children in that system, in his semi-autobiographical 1998 novel Kiss of the Fur Queen, today he speaks of his own experience in a positive light. As he told the Globe and Mail in 2013: “[Because] of the residential system, by the time I was 12, I was trilingual. Because of the residential system, I learned how to play the piano and I play like a dream.”
Indeed, Highway has had a very fortunate life. Born in a tent in northern Manitoba in 1951, the eleventh child of a caribou hunter and a quilt-maker, he was taken from his family at age six and placed in the Guy Hill Indian Residential School, which he attended until he was 15. After completing his secondary education in Winnipeg, he ended up at the University of Western Ontario, studying music.
To this day, he thinks of himself primarily as a musician. “My first dream was to become a concert pianist,” he says. “But thank God I didn’t become one. I don’t like the lifestyle. You spend all your time between concert stages and hotel rooms. You can’t get married, you can’t have children. Or if you do, you’ll never see them. I remember Ofra Harnoy, the cellist, said she celebrated her birthday after a concert in Paris by going back to her hotel room and eating a chocolate bar. It’s a lonely life, it really is, and I like people too much. So I decided to make music with language instead.”
The concert hall’s loss was the theatre’s gain. When Highway took up playwriting in Toronto in the 1980s—after an eye-opening stint as a social worker—he brought the contemporary indigenous experience to Canada’s mainstages with plays that mixed raucous comedy and heartbreaking tragedy. His 1986 breakthrough hit The Rez Sisters (revived in Toronto in 2011) and its dark companion piece, Dry Lips, were landmark works that toured internationally and established his reputation. More notable achievements followed, including his first novel, Fur Queen, and Pimooteewin (The Journey), the world’s first Cree-language opera. Already a member of the Order of Canada, he was recently honoured by the Canadian Theatre Critics Association with its Herbert Whittaker Award for his distinguished career.
Highway says it’s nice to feel love from the critics. “I’ve been raked over the coals in the past,” he notes good-naturedly, claiming that he once received a review that said “Tomson oughta move to Kapuskasing.”
These days, life is sweet for Highway. No longer a Toronto resident, he now spends part of the year in Gatineau, Quebec, and the winters travelling abroad. After the holidays he’ll be flying off to Rome to write—his latest project is an autobiography. One of the keys to his happiness is a long-term relationship: he and his partner, Raymond Lalonde, have been together for 30 years. “He’s absolutely fantastic—the kindest man on the face of the Earth,” Highway says. “I always say I get treated better than the Queen. When I look at all these heterosexual men who have gone through these tortured marriages, with the hatred, the cruelty, the alimony payments, it’s like a battle zone. I thank God every day that I’m not heterosexual. I thank God for that privilege.”