Tomson Highway

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Tomson Highway is a playwright, novelist, and songwriter. He is the son of legendary caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer, Joe Highway, and artist-in-her-own-right (as bead-worker and quilt-maker), Pelagie Highway. A full-blood Cree, he is a registered member of the Barren Lands First Nation, the village for which is called Brochet and which village is located in northern Manitoba where it meets Saskatchewan and what is now called Nunavut. Today, he writes novels, plays, and music for a living. 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, 1975) and the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts (English major, 1976), both from "Western." His plays concern themselves with indigenous society and dramatize Aboriginal culture.
Tomson Highway


He speaks fluent Cree (his mother tongue), French, and English. He plays the piano "fluently." He was born the 11th of 12 children on the 6th of December, 1951 in northwestern Manitoba. He did not grow up on the reserve, but rather in Canada's sub-Arctic, an un-peopled region of hundreds of lakes, endless forests of spruce and pine, and great herds of caribou. Today (as for the past eleven years), he divides his year equally between, in summer, a cottage on a lake in the heart of Ojibway (and French) Ontario just south of Sudbury (from whence hails his partner of 29 years) and, in winter, Gatineau Québec. At both of these locales he is currently hard at work on his second and, as yet, untitled novel.

Early Life

For seven 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 programs of one kind or another, with other Native social workers and activists, with Native visual artists, writers, healers, Elders, politicians, women, 2-Spirits, and more. Tomson worked on reserves and in urban centers across Ontario and throughout all of Canada, though he was almost always based at head offices in Toronto. Then he turned 30 and decided it was time to put all his artistic training and Native social work experience together – he started writing music, plays, and, later, novels.


After many years working in the Toronto theatre industry, writing and producing his own plays, he achieved national and international recognition in 1986 with his sixth play, the multi-award-winning The Rez Sisters. This was followed in 1989 by its companion play, the even more successful Dry Lips Otta Move to Kapuskasing, which 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 (1990). These two plays continue to be produced and/or studied at theatres and universities around the world, including theatres in such centres as New York City (Off-Broadway), Tokyo (in Japanese), Edinburgh, Scotland (the Edinburgh Festival), and more. As well, both have the distinction of being published in anthologies beside works written by such figures of world dramatic literature as Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, and Bertold Brecht. Most recent (though not part of what he calls "The Rez Cycle") is his tragi-comic allegory, Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout which had its world premiere at the Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, B.C., 24 January, 2004 and has since played several other Canadian and American cities.

From 1986 to 1992, he was Artistic Director of Native Earth Performing Arts, Toronto's only (at the time) professional Native theatre company. As a result of the work done, Toronto now boasts the world's most active Aboriginal theatre industry. This 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. In part as a result of the production of a "national literature" that did not exist before those years, Native enrollment in Canada's universities in the past decade-and-a-half has gone up.

In 1998, he published his first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, which was nominated for several awards and spent several weeks on Canadian bestseller lists. To this day it continues to be absorbed into university curricula in many countries the whole world over, from Spain to Brazil, from Poland to New Zealand.

Tomson also wrote three children's books, all published by HarperCollins Canada: Caribou Song (2001), Dragon Fly Kites (2002), and Fox on the Ice (2003). All are written bilingually in Cree (his mother tongue) and English. They are illustrated by Alberta-born, Toronto-based visual artist, Brian Deines and were short-listed for various prizes.

He has been Writer-in-Residence at the Universities of Toronto, Concordia (Montreal), British Columbia (Vancouver), and Simon Fraser University (at its Kamloops campus), among many others. As well, he has taught Aboriginal Mythology at the University of Toronto (University College), at which institution he holds the post of "Adjunct Professor" (meaning that he teaches there if and when he happens to be "in town," a period of time that averages out to perhaps one month a year). Most recently, for the fall terms of both 2006 and 2007, he held the post of "Stanley Knowles Distinguished Visiting Professor" at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba.

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, Adrienne Clarkson Presents, Life and Times (respectively 1991 and 1997, both for the CBC), and, most recently, Tomson Highway Gets His Trout (2003, Getaway Films Inc.).


Musical Performance


  • Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best New Play and Best Production (three wins, five nominations)
  • The Governor General's Literary Award for Drama (two nominations)
  • The Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award (two wins)
  • The Toronto Arts Award
  • The Wang Harbourfront International Festival of Authors Award
  • The Silver Ticket Award
  • The National Aboriginal Achievement Award (2001)
  • The Order of Canada (1994)
  • Ten honorary doctorates (Carleton University, Thornloe University, Brandon University, University of Winnipeg, University of Western Ontario, University of Windsow, Laurentian University, Lakehead University, L'Universite de Montreal, and the University of Toronto).