Healing the Human Spirit – an interview with Tomson Highway

Categories: Education and People & Places.

Tomson Highway, renowned playwright, novelist and musician will be a plenary speaker alongside Dr Ariel Dempsey at the McGill International Palliative Care Congress on October 16th. Entitled “The Sage, The Dancer and the Fool: Palliating Uncertainty” ( in which the sage is the intellect, the dancer is the spirit, and the fool is the body of a person), the complexities and challenges of uncertainty will be addressed through the unique perspectives of native culture and language, dance, music and medicine.

Tomson Highway has been awarded nine honorary degrees, as well as equivalent honors from the Royal Conservatory of Music (Toronto) and the National Theatre School (Montreal). In 1994 he was made a member of the Order of Canada and in 2001 he received the National Indigenous Achievement Award in the category of arts and culture. Highway is considered one of Canada’s most important playwrights.

His memoir Permanent Astonishment was the winner of the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Highway gave the 2022 Massey Lectures.

While he calls Gatineau, Quebec, his “home”, Highway delights in travelling the world and speaking many languages. Devon Phillips interviewed Tomson Highway while he was in Brazil.

Devon Phillips (DP)
I am so happy I have the chance to catch up with you. I want to hear about your travels. How is Brazil?

Tomson Highway (TH)
I love travelling the world, I really do. I was born travelling. If I don’t travel, I’m not myself. This is my 12th time in Rio. I’m staying at a bed and breakfast here in Rio and you can hear the ocean. One of the reasons I leave is to go and hide out so nobody can reach me and look at you, you have reached me.

DP: Why Rio?

TH: Well, I love languages. I love learning the Portuguese language, Brasileiro. English is not my first language. In total it took me 15 years to learn English and another 15 years to learn French and another 15 years to learn Italian, and so on. And now I’m learning Portuguese, and every stop
that I make, I try to learn at least the basics you know, the polite things like, good morning, and did you sleep well?

DP: You speak many languages, but I’m assuming in your heart, your language is Cree.

TH: Absolutely. My first language is Cree. It’s a very wonderful language. It’s a laughing language. When you first utter it, you start to laugh immediately. Cree is a trickster’s language. The mythological figure who brought it to us was a clown.

We’re all touched by Christianity because we live in the Western world, that has been formed to a very large extent by theology-mythology. The central lesson is that we are here to suffer, that we are here to atone for a crime that we did not commit. And so, we’re paying the price for that.

There’s the story of the garden: God created humankind and put humans in a beautiful garden and then kicked them out, and we’ve been outside the garden ever since. But in Cree mythology and native North American mythology as a whole, it’s the reverse.

The reason why we’re here on planet Earth is to laugh, to have a good time, to enjoy the garden.

In order to get past the idea that we are still in the garden, we have to go beyond the English language to understand that idea implicitly and explicitly. There’s a great big story to that, but that’s basically the idea.

DP: So I’m assuming that the joy that comes from Cree mythology informs your identity and the work that you’re doing.

TH: Yes, very much so.

DP: Let’s talk about your plenary addressing the theme of uncertainty. You will be collaborating with Ariel Dempsey. You both have artistic practices. You bring your classical music training and all your experience as a playwright and novelist, and she brings her experience as a dancer and a physician. What are your thoughts on this collaboration?

TH: It will be a perfect collaboration. Science and music are very closely related. I’ve met people who are of a scientific nature, who are also musicians and artists, but I have never known someone who is a medical doctor and an artist like Ariel. It helps that my youngest brother, the 11th of 12 children, was a dancer. He was experimenting with choreography towards the end of his life; he died young. He asked me, as a pianist and a composer, to write a piece of music for him and so I started writing music for dance. I’m very intimate with the world of dance -the terms and the movement and how to write music for it. So, I feel very comfortable with this. And my brother is still here; he is here as a beam of energy right here in this room.

In native culture, there is an expression, “there is no death, there is only a going away”.

DP: I don’t want to give away the story of the plenary, but for people who will be coming, what would you like to tell them about the driving force behind your message?

TH: I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that I’m a doctor too. Medical doctors deal with disease. They deal with the human body after the disease has taken hold when it’s too late. Artists in their own way are doctors as well. It’s just that we deal with the human spirit as opposed to the
body. We deal with the spiritual reality of the individual and of the society from which she comes. We deal with that entity before the disease takes over, before it’s too late. Artists are here to cure the ill society before illness takes over. We’re healers. We heal the human spirit. And without the symphonies of Beethoven, you know, the world would be a very depressing place and our spirits would shrivel up, shrink, and die. This includes literature, poetry, visual arts. I sincerely believe that artists are healers as well, just like medical doctors.

Doctors deal with the human body; artists deal with the human spirit.

DP: Beautifully said. I’m looking forward to you and Ariel combining incredible artistic and intellectual powers to create a memorable plenary. And from just knowing a little bit about you, I think that will involve bringing a lot of joy and healing.

TH: I hope to because I deal with the human community as a whole. That’s an artist’s principal job. Andthen, depending on who we are, artists deal with more specific communities. My community is the native community. I’m very hands on: I write about native people. I write about their problems, their humor, their laughter, their songs, I make them sing, I give them music. There is nothing more engaging than for a community to sing, to let the lungs breathe. We all have to sing.

Christian mythology, which is at the other end of the spectrum deals with God. But in that system of thought, there was only one God and he is male. In Native mythology it’s reversed. When Columbus first arrived in North America in 1492, the first question we had was, “where is your wife? Why did you come alone?” Where is the idea of divinity in a female form in Christianity?

We are coming to a time now where the male God stands the chance of destroying the planet, with ecological crises, environmental imbalance, forest fires, floods, and God knows what else. And in order for society to correct that imbalance, we have to give the goddess, so to speak, back her place in the scheme of things. Do we have an answer to the question, where is God’s wife? Well, she’s been here all this time. God is in heaven as a celestial presence removed from the Earth. The goddess is in the earth. She is the mother. And we have to take care of her.

I know I’ve had an incredible life and I’m grateful for it. But I have grandchildren who are now 12 and 10. What kind of planet will we be dealing with after we go? You know, it’s not fair for us to have destroyed it. We want to leave a planet to our next generation that is livable, air that is breathable, water that’s drinkable. That’s what we’re here for, to bring that idea back to life.

DP: Is there anything else you’d like to convey to the people, from about 65 countries, who will be coming to the Congress?

TH: It will be a pleasure for me to meet them. Yes, absolutely. To be able to speak to these people. I speak the music of Brahms and Chopin. I speak several other languages as well. Je parle facilement le français. J’ai hâte d’accueillir tout le monde à Montréal. I can’t wait to meet everyone !

In 2022 I was a Massey lecturer, and they published my lecture in a book, called Laughing with the Trickster . This lecture will help people tremendously to meet some of the ideas that will be represented at the plenary session on October 16th
Link to 2022 Massey Lectures, Laughing with the Trickster, by Tomson Highway:

Link to book version of Laughing with the Trickster.
Laughing with the Trickster – House of Anansi Press

Photographed by Sean Howard



ehospice – official partner of the McGill International Congress on Palliative Care” 
“ehospice – partenaire officiel du Congrès international de McGill sur les soins palliatifs.”



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