After four decades of work that includes award-winning plays and books, there’s no sign the Cree author and playwright is slowing down.

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Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Gala

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When or: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 28, Southam Hall National Arts Center


Writing wasn’t Tomson Highway’s first choice when the acclaimed Cree author and playwright set out to make his mark on the world, a path honored on Saturday with a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for his lifetime achievement. his artistic achievements.

From the time Highway learned to play the piano in boarding school until attending college, his desire was to be a globe-trotting concert pianist, the artist revealed in an extensive interview in the modest home he shares with his longtime partner., Raymond Lalonde, in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau.

“It was my first dream,” said the charming septuagenarian, “but it fell through because I started too late.”

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Most accomplished pianists start at age four or five, he explained, and many grow up with a grand piano at home. Highway, who grew up in the region where Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Nunavut meet, had no such luxury. The nearest piano was 600 kilometers away.

Highway learned to play the piano at the age of 11, and although he got through five years of the Royal Conservatory in one year and continued to study with excellent teachers, he was not able to achieve the required skill level.

“I got to a point where I had to admit that I just wasn’t competitive enough,” he said. “Competition is fierce in classical concert piano, and I just wasn’t good enough. Maybe if I had started earlier.

Instead, he got a job in social work and found himself helping other Indigenous people deal with their trauma. Highway describes the work as “painful but also very enlightening”, noting that “it showed me where the pain of the Indigenous community was”.

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Then he had a revelation. “I have come to the conclusion, after much thought and trial and error, that the only way for a community to be healthy is to have a healthy collective mind, and to fix that damaged mind you do art,” Highway said. “You have reconstituted your soul from painting, theater, literature, music, cinema and all the other arts. I don’t really consider myself an artist. I am still a social worker who finds doing his social work in art. I’m still doing the same kind of work that I’ve always done, and it’s been a fantastic journey.

It’s a journey that has resulted in the writing of award-winning plays such as The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, to name but two informed by his social work, as well as a novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, and a memoir, Permanent Astonishment, which came out late last year and chronicles the first 15 years of her life.

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Plus, after four decades, there’s no sign of the highway slowing down. Not only is he working on another “very important” book, he also wrote and recorded his first Cree-language country music album, the aptly titled Cree Country. A summer concert tour is also in the works.

It was therefore no wonder that he was initially a little puzzled as to the exact reason for our interview. “What is that for? he said, adding that he was expecting a call from Australia any minute for an interview about the album. “Is it for the concert?” The Order of Canada? Oh man, I have so much going on. And the CD? Can we talk about it?

Of course we did. He sat down to play one of the exciting new songs on the grand piano in the living room, then we listened to the recorded version again, which features singer Patricia Cano’s luxurious vocals. The highway does not sing.

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“Are you kidding?” he said mischievously. “The last time I sang in public, 10 people died and 10 others vomited. It was quite an event.”

As for his penchant for country music, it was inculcated during his childhood in the North, well before his years of study in classical music.

“The only music we had was from a transistor radio and it only picked up at night and only if we hung it on a tree,” he recalls. “And the only reception was a radio station in Nashville because Nashville has the strongest radio stations in North America. We had this whole Nashville country, and I grew up with it.

Finally, we came to the subject of the Governor General’s award — not the Order of Canada, which promoted him from member to officer earlier this year — but the performing arts award for his lifetime artistic achievements. He was waiting for him, in a tuxedo, at a gala at the National Arts Center on Saturday, he recalls.

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“Well, of course, I’m honored,” Highway said, becoming pensive. “You know, there are times in your career where you wonder. Everyone goes through that. You have times when you are depressed and wonder, “Why am I doing this? Is my work useful to someone else? And it turns out you are, and encouragement like this tells you that you are doing the right thing. It validates your life, your work. I feel good about it.

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The winners of the GGPAA 2022

Fernand Dansereau: Pioneer of Quebec cinema and television.

Rita Shelton Deverell: TV host, theater artist, academic

David Foster: A successful pop music writer and producer.

Tomson Highway: Acclaimed writer and performer.

Linda Rabin: Dancer, teacher, choreographer and somatic movement educator.

Michelle Smith: Manitoba Arts Volunteer Receives Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts

Crystal Pite: Choreographer and director receives National Arts Center Award (in recognition of work of an extraordinary nature by an individual artist or company in the last year of performance)

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