Tomson Highway ~ Canadian/Cree

Published on June 30, 2012 by Amy

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Tomson Highway
Tomson Highway

Tomson Highway, CM (born December 5, 1951) is a celebrated Canadian and Cree playwright, novelist, and children’s author. He is the author of the plays The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, both of which won him the Dora Mavor Moore Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Award.

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Highway has also published a novel, Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998), which is based on the events that led to his brother René Highway’s death of AIDS. He also has the distinction of being the librettist of the first Cree language opera, The Journey or Pimooteewin.


Tomson Highway was born in Brochet, Manitoba in 1951 to Pelagie Highway, a bead-worker and quilt-maker, and Joe Highway, a caribou hunter and champion dogsled racer. He is related to actor/playwight Billy Merasty. From age six to fifteen, he attended Guy Hill Indian Residential School where he was sexually abused by the priests who ran the school. This deeply affected Highway’s later work, as well as that of his brother, René.

He obtained his B.A. in Honours Music in 1975 and his B.A. in English in 1976, both from the University of Western Ontario. While working on his degree, he met playwright James Reaney. For seven years, Highway worked as a social worker on reserves across Ontario and Canada. Subsequently, he turned the knowledge and experience gained by working in these places into novels and plays that have won him widespread recognition across Canada and around the world.
In 1986, he published the multiple-award winning play The Rez Sisters. The Rez Sisters became a hit across Canada and went on to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1988. In 1989, he published Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, which received the distinction of the being the first Canadian play to receive a full production at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. Both of these plays focus on the native community on a fictional reserve of Wasychigan Hill on Manitoulin Island. The Rez Sisters depicts seven women of the community planning a trip to the “BIGGEST BINGO IN THE WORLD” in Toronto and features a male trickster, called Nanabush; while Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing depicts the men’s interest in hockey and features a female trickster. Rose, written in 2000, is the third play in the heptalogy, featuring characters from both of the previous plays.

He was artistic director of Native Earth Performing Arts in Toronto from 1986 to 1992, as well as De-ba-jeh-mu-jig theatre group in Wikwemikong.

Frustrated with difficulties presented by play production, Highway turned his focus to a novel called Kiss of the Fur Queen. The novel presents an uncompromising portrait of the sexual abuse of Native children in residential schools and its traumatic consequences. Like his plays, Kiss of the Fur Queen won a number of awards and spent several weeks on top of Canadian bestseller lists.

After a 10-year hiatus from play writing, Highway wrote Enestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout in 2005. Set in 1910, the play revolves around the visit of the “Big Kahoona of Canada” (then Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier) to the Thompson River Valley.

In 2010, Highway re-published The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing in Cree. Highway stated that “the Cree versions [...] are actually the original versions. As it turns out, the original ones that came out 20 years ago were the translation.”

Awards and Recognition

Highway has been awarded eight honorary degrees from Brandon University, the University of Winnipeg, the University of Western Ontario (London), the University of Windsor, Laurentian University (Sudbury, Ontario), Lakehead University (Thunder Bay, Ontario), l’Universite de Montreal, and the University of Toronto. In addition, he holds two “equivalents” of such honours: from The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and The National Theatre School in Montreal.

In 1994, he was made a member of the Order of Canada. In 2000, Maclean’s named him as one of the 100 most important people in Canadian history. Cree is his first language. In 2001, he received a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the field of arts and culture.

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