C.M.; B.A., B.Mus.(Western); LL.D.(Carl)(Thornloe)(Bran.)(Wpg.)(Western)(Wind.)(Laur.)(Lake.)(Montr.)(Tor.)
Born on the Tundra in December of 1951, Mr. Tomson Highway is the proud son of caribou hunter and avid dogsled racer, Joe Highway, and artist, Pelagie Highway. He enjoyed a rich, early childhood in the northern reaches of Manitoba. His father wanted him to receive the education he could not access so he sent him to residential school. That is where a young Tomson found music and developed a love for playing the piano.
He dreamt of becoming a concert pianist and completed a bachelor of music at the University of Western Ontario in 1976. Social work soon became his passion and he devoted himself to developing cultural-educational programs and working with Indigenous peoples on issues such as crime, addiction, and family separation.
By age 30, he combined his profession with his artistry, and turned his focus to playwriting as he appreciated how it mirrored the oral tradition of his Cree culture. In 1986 while serving as artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto, the first professional Indigenous theatre company in the country, he wrote the groundbreaking play The Rez Sisters. By portraying the difficulties of Indigenous peoples with sensitivity and humour, he set the tone for a new movement in Indigenous performing arts in Canada.
His follow-up companion play, Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, was the first Canadian play to have a full (and extended) run at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, and productions continue to be mounted globally. The play launched Mr. Highway’s name into the elite realms of international theatre and had a profound effect on the Indigenous cultural landscape. In 1998, his award-winning first novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen, won equal praise and continues to be used in university curriculum in classes across the globe from Poland to Brazil.
The way in which Mr. Highway has claimed his experiences, and the truth he portrays without fear, has validated the stories of Indigenous peoples and spurned other artists into action. The proliferation of Indigenous arts courses and departments can be traced in large part to his influence.
He has served as playwright- and writer-in-residence at universities across the country, and has received recognition across genres from Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Best New Play and Best Production in 1988, to a Juno Award nomination for Aboriginal Album of the Year.
In 1994, Mr. Highway became the first Indigenous author inducted into the Order of Canada, and he has been named one of the 100 most important people in Canada’s history by Maclean's magazine.
The University of Manitoba is proud to award a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, to Mr. Tomson Highway for his powerful truth telling, his generous artistic spirit, and his indelible leadership in the Indigenous creative arts.