At six feet, five inches, dressed in a dapper double-breasted grey suit and with his black hair swept into a small braid, Tom Jackson seems larger than life. Smiling easily and frequently, he has magnetism to spare. In person, Jackson is totally unlike the role he is best known for—militant native Chief Peter Kenidi in the popular CBC dramatic series North of 60. With his abundant energy and enthusiasm, he is closer to irrepressible Harlen Bigbear, his character in the upcoming CBC movie Medicine River. But then, the half-Indian actor has had several incarnations since he was bom almost 45 years ago on the One Arrow Reserve near Batoche, Sask. In addition to his work onstage and in television, Jackson is a folksinger, impresario and a philanthropist. Once a teenage street person and, later, what he calls a “broken, busted man,” he is now enjoying the busiest time of his career. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to notice that there’s a high native profile out there these days,” he said. “I’m in the flattering position of having to turn down roles simply because I’m too busy. And I mean good roles, where natives are real human beings, not stereotypes.”
Surprisingly, Winnipeg-based Jackson says that his TV work (he is a regular on the PBS children’s show Shining Time Station and had major roles in recent CBC dramas including The Diviners) and his musical career (he has recorded four albums and recently signed a new deal with Oak St. Music) are merely a means to an end. “I fit that work into my other work,” he explained. The “other” work is a commitment to raise money for everything from literacy to the plight of the homeless. He is currently trying to set up mobile soup kitchens in Winnipeg and Calgary. He has also convinced the Calgary police force to “take me out and let me touch hands with people who will be the recipients.” In his home town of Winnipeg, he and his wife, Alison, raise money for organizations working with the homeless through their Christmas and Winter Relief Association.
As well, every year Jackson and other musicians stage the Huron Carol Christmas Concert. The proceeds from those performances go to food banks, while profits from the sale of Jackson’s cassettes go mainly to the Salvation Army.
Peter Gzowski, host of CBC Radio’s Morningside program, says that Jackson’s charitable activities are well-known in the industry. “There’s nothing calculated about him, it’s not a line,” Gzowski says. “He’s always out there doing it, figuring out ways to do it better.” Gzowski,
Tom Jackson has many masks and many lives who first met Jackson in the 1970s at a folk music festival, said that even then Jackson had a “commanding presence” offstage as well as on. “You can’t hang around Tom without liking him,” he added.
Jackson attributes his involvement in philanthropic causes to the influence of his parents, Marshal, who is of English descent, and Rose, a Cree. “My mother and my father were God to me,” Jackson says. “But I used to get frustrated and angry—to the point of tears—when my mother insisted on taking on the weight of the world. I couldn’t understand why she’d watch the news and cry or go out of her way on the street to help some poor guy.” Then he shrugs and adds: “But I was young and stupid.” Jackson says that as his mother aged, the weight seemed to lift from her. “It was like that statue of Atlas with the globe held on his shoulder—it passed over to me,” he says, gesturing with his arms. “And you know the funniest thing about it, it isn’t heavy at all. It’s almost selfish, it’s so rewarding.”
There was never any question where Jackson wanted to put that energy. His own experience living on the streets of Winnipeg “more or less” from age 15 to 22, gave him a special connection to the homeless. He stresses that his parents had not kicked him out. “I was a guy who chose to live on the street,” he says. “I slept under steps, all that stuff. Yeah, it was tough if I look back on it, but at the time I was running around having a great time.” His parents—who had moved from a small village north of Edmonton—worried about him, he says, but he always stayed in touch. “I’d go visit at home, and my mother would give me this squint, and say, “You did whaaaaat?’ ” Jackson recalled, laughing. “But she’d never preach to me.”
Jackson is reluctant to be specific about his life on the street or about the difficulties of growing up half-Indian. He says he fears misinterpretation. “It doesn’t make sense for me to try to talk about the things I saw,” he says, measuring his words carefully. “They’d come out like they were only painful, like they weren’t part of what made my life very rich.” Then he adds emphatically: “I have no complaints in life, and I’m not going to tell anybody I have complaints.” When pressed, he says that on the street he “learned a lot of good things in a bad environment—there was a lot of camaraderie and generosity as well as the tough stuff.” He attributes his own survival to “sheer luck.”
Along with the luck came a warm baritone voice and musical ability that has made him a fixture on the folk festival circuit since the 1970s. He branched out into acting when he was asked to read for the part of David Joe in The Ecstasy of Rita Joe in 1981. Jackson took over the role that Chief Dan George had made famous, and he went with the production to New York City in 1982. Since then, he has appeared in several notable productions, including Linda Griffith’s Jessica (1986) and Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing (1990). In between stage performances, he earned a Genie nomination for supporting actor in the film Loyalties (1987) and made numerous appearances on such TV shows as Street Legal, The Campbells and The Tommy Hunter Show. And at various times in the past, he said, he has supported himself with winning at various recreational activities: “cards, pool, backgammon, chess, anything.”
While modest about his career, Jackson is remarkably candid about his own shortcomings, particularly a period in the mid-1980s. He had moved to Toronto in 1986 and was working regularly onstage and in TV and movies. But his extracurricular life was taking a toll financially and emotionally: ‘Too much self-indulgence, too many cafés and bars, too many pool halls—I was imploding.” Then he adds with a grin: “But, God, it was fun.” He borrowed money for a one-way ticket back to Winnipeg in December, 1987, and arrived home, he says, weary and defeated. “But I’d decided that if I couldn’t help myself then I’d at least help others.” At first, Jackson adds, he was disorganized and green in his efforts to raise money for charity, and the results were mixed. “But I had great spirit,” he says. “I don’t think you can go wrong if you’re trying to do good.”
He met his future wife Alison, then a CBC co-ordinator, during that period, and the couple were married in September, 1991. Jackson will not discuss his family life, other than to say that he has four grown children, from past relationships—and three grandchildren. His wife, he says proudly, was present at the birth of one of those
grandchildren. “I call her the father,” he says. “She was my daughter’s labor coach during the delivery.”
In 1988, Jackson began managing and performing at a Winnipeg bar called The Treble Clef. The following year, he began acting again, playing Othello in the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan Festival. “Me, play Othello,” Jackson says, rolling his eyes. “It’s tough enough for me to read—I never finished school—much less read Shakespeare. But I did it, and I learned a hell of a lot.”
In between movie projects and his regular work on North of 60 and Shining Time Station, Jackson is producing a native musical called Dreamcatcher that is slated to tour Germany next year. The show is intended to alter the image of native culture and to showcase such contemporary native musicians as Kashtin. ‘We want to counteract the beads-and-feathers, beavers-and-bears approach to native culture,” says Jackson, who had met that day with government officials about the project. Tom Jackson, with his many masks and many lives, is already doing that.
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