'People think this is a sacrifice. It's not. This is what I want to do— and it's a blast'
TOM JACKSON'S IMPOSING six-foot, five-inch frame hunches over the recording studio microphone, his arms outstretched and his fingers clenched like a bird of prey about to pounce. "Silent night, holy night," he sings, wringing every ounce of emotion he can from the familiar refrain. It's just one of dozens of takes, in a session that began at noon and is now racing towards midnight. Jackson is putting the finishing touches on his latest CD, The Huron Carole, so it can be ready in time for the concert series of the same name, which this year will take him to 15 Canadian cities. During an outdoors smoke break on a chilly evening in Calgary, Jackson reflects on what makes the effort so rewarding. "You know," he says, "that the end result is going to feed a lot of people for a long time.”
Jackson is speaking quite literally: all of the proceeds from The Huron Carole—now in its eleventh year—go to support Canadian food banks. Last year, the concerts raised over $300,000, which food-bank operators leveraged into $6 million worth of supplies through discounted bulk purchases. The annual Christmas tour is just one of several philanthropic ventures spearheaded by the 50-year-old singer and actor, perhaps bestknown for his role in the long-running CBC series North of 60. In the past two years alone, Jackson has performed on behalf of battered women's shelters, raised an estimated $3 million for Manitoba flood victims and taken a travelling road show, the Dreamcatcher Tour, to dozens of small northern communities to increase awareness about teenage suicide. Jackson devotes about six months a year to charitable causes—
an investment of time he does not begrudge. "People think this is a sacrifice," he says. "It's not. This is what I want to do— and it's a blast."
Jackson traces his impulse to do good to his mother, a woman who he says "could never walk past a person in need." All the same, he only began to follow her example fairly late in life—-and after walking down what he calls "some very dark roads." Jackson was born on the One Arrow reserve near Batoche, Sask., the product of a mixedrace marriage (his father, Marshal, was of English descent, his mother, Rose, a Cree). After the family moved to Winnipeg in 1963, Jackson dropped out of school at age 15. For the next seven years, he lived on the street, playing pool incessantly and discovering what he recalls, paradoxically, as a "wonderful sense of camaraderie."
Jackson left the street in the early 1970s after being invited to sing on a local radio program, which led to a stint as a radio host. By the mid-1980s, Jackson had moved to Toronto and carved out a career as a theatre and television actor. But his personal life was in shambles, the result of immersing himself in what he describes as "every conceivable plague out there," including booze and drugs. He experienced an epiphany of sorts in 1987 when, penniless himself, he watched more than a dozen people walk by a dying man on a downtown Toronto street. Jackson lent a hand—and says he decided from that point on to dedicate his life to "making a difference."
It was about this time that he met his future wife and business partner, Alison (he has four grown children from previous relationships). In their adopted home of Calgary, the couple have built up a successful commercial base—among other things, Jackson is now developing a movie studio—that will free him to do even more charitable work. "I'm an addictive personality, as many will tell you," laughs Jackson. "I'm addicted to this. I got that hit and now I'm hooked."
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