Tom Jackson doesn’t just use his voice for entertainment. He uses it to create change.
The 71-year-old Calgary-based six-foot, five-inch star – who cheekily embraces The Big Guy moniker in his Twitter bio – is still hugely busy five decades into his extensive career in film, TV, music and activism.
In the past few years, he seems to have hit his stride. Starring opposite Liam Neeson in the thriller Cold Pursuit, racking up TV credits on series Outlander and Cardinal and releasing the 21-track double CD retrospective The Essential Tom Jackson, all the while continuing his philanthropic cross-country tour The Huron Carole.
“The reason one does the kind of things that I do is because I have an addictive personality. I’m addicted to saving lives,” the Canadian Red Cross ambassador and former Trent University chancellor admits. “And it doesn’t cost much. It lasts forever.”
It’s no wonder Time magazine named him one of Canada’s best activists.
Born on One Arrow Reserve near Batoche, Sask. to Rose, a Cree, and Marshall, an Englishman, and raised in Winnipeg, the self-described Canadian-Indian or “CanIndian” says he decided to pursue performing after the opportunity to open for musician Graham Jones came to him while he was living on the street at age 17. It led him to realize he could make a positive change in his life.
Success didn’t come easily. During the 1980s, when he was on the streets of Toronto struggling with an addiction to cocaine, he recalls his Creator promising to help him in exchange for helping another worse off than him.
It was just the motivation he needed. Jackson got serious about his career, deciding to use his talents as a platform. “I better learn this craft of carrying cables and learning all the other things that influence the art and the work so that I can get better at it,” he says. “And if I didn’t have a job singing, I could carry cables and that was going to allow me to gain some credibility with friends of mine who had influence, whom I asked to walk shoulder to shoulder with me – to help me with this crazy idea of feeding people.”
A born storyteller, the former radio host behind The Tom Jackson Show and The Longhouse Tales co-creator/star peppers in credit to others in his success story. Landing his first singing gig around the age of 16, he remembers meeting a local radio producer to discuss taking part in a show exploring how different cultures celebrate Christmas. Convincing the producer that he could read music, he was given “Huron Carol” – turning to a friend to help him learn the song.
Similarly, one of his earliest roles came about when, despite his lack of acting experience, Dave Jandrisch hired him to perform the story of trickster Nanabush for Sesame Street in the middle of Manitoba’s Falcon Lake as part of a push to have regional Canadian representation on the show. “Even from the early days in my career, I was very fortunate in being somewhere where someone was more than curious and gave me an opportunity to do something,” he says.
Although Jackson might be best known for his portrayal of chief Peter Kenidi on North of 60 (CBC) – a role that saw him earn three Gemini nominations and a Best Actor Award from the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA) – his long-time agent Alicia Jeffery from The Characters acknowledges that his screen acting career is vast and varied, with roles in The Diviners, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. “The heart and the integrity and the dignity – those are his things,” she says, noting that all his ventures feature those essential qualities. “And that’s always been his thing in acting. The minute I get a script I can pretty much think, ‘Yep’ or ‘No.’”
And although he played Billy Twofeathers in the kids series Shining Time Station around the same time in the 1990s, Jackson considers North of 60 his breakthrough.
Set in the fictional town of Lynx River, NWT, North of 60 was created by Barbara Samuels and Wayne Grigsby and follows the day-to-day lives of the town’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents. Produced by Alliance Communications and Alberta Filmworks (now known as SEVEN24 Films), the series aired for six seasons and spurred five made-for-TV films. “People got to see what First Nations communities were like without having to go into them. It was wonderful, it was honest and it had a life – it still has a life,” Jackson says, noting how the show airs in reruns on Canadian specialty channel APTN.
Cree actor and producer Tina Keeper, who played Jackson’s sister RCMP constable Michelle Kenidi, remembers feeling like her co-star was her brother from the start of the show. “Much like the character, I just feel like he’s a man of fortitude – he’s kind, he’s very generous, he’s renowned for his philanthropy work. He’s just truly a wonderful person,” she says.
Even now, the former member of Parliament says she still feels a bond with him – noting that Jackson was one of the people she called to ask if running in the 2006 federal election for the Liberal Party was the right move for her.
Jackson has shied away from political stances for most of his career except for a few occasions.
On one of his most recent credits, Cold Pursuit, Parks Canada denied permission to film in the Rocky Mountains due to concerns about the plot and portrayal of Jackson’s character as an Indigenous gang boss. In turn, he insisted the script wasn’t disrespectful to his character or his culture. Addressing how First Nations characters are represented today, Jackson acknowledges that he’s noticed over time how the industry has adopted terms like inclusiveness, diversity and cultural appropriation. “Personally, I think this [is] a very healthy practice. The word is great. The verb is better,” he says.
Jackson was a busy, positive force on set, according to Tom Cox, executive producer and managing partner at SEVEN24 Films – someone who was always trying to balance his philanthropic efforts with his work. He was also someone who could bring together collaborators, including himself, to perform as back-up singers in his annual seasonal Huron Carole charity show. Going into its 33rd year, the tour has raised roughly $230 million in combined cash and in-kind value for hunger and disaster relief. “He challenged all of us to look at what we were doing not just as entertainment,” says Cox. “And I don’t think any of us were that narrow in our view of that show and its role in Canadian culture, but he challenged us to sort of walk the talk. And I think things like The Huron Carole and The Dreamcatcher Tour made us realize we’re not just making TV. We live in the world and our actions are felt in the world.”
Launched in 1997, the Dreamcatcher Tour grew out of Jackson’s need to help the North of 60 community and the suicide of nineteen-year-old actor Mervin Good Eagle, who played Joey Small Boat. Founded in collaboration with Health Canada, and later FNESS (First Nations’ Emergency Services Society), the project was originally designed to encourage community discussions about suicide. The initiative led him to realize that he didn’t want to help people deal with their grief: “What I wanted to do was remove the possibility of [their sorrow] happening again.”
A turning point in Jackson’s career came when North of 60 wrapped. He had acquired “a treasure trunk of ‘show-business experience,’” allowing him to cast himself into a new role. “So, get used to making phone calls, get used to doing things, get used to not necessarily following a cause,” he says. “Be the reason there is a cause.”
Over the years, the Order of Canada honoree has turned his attention towards producing events and variety benefit concerts for TV with his wife Alison Jackson under their production and stage management banner Tomali Pictures. A combination of both their names and skills, the company counts a long-running TV special of The Huron Carole among its credits. ”We are always working, developing new ideas, and paying attention. So that part of 30-plus years of creating our business hasn’t changed at all. In fact it’s a bit challenging at times to remember that we’re married and then we still end up talking about work,” Alison says. “We used to have a rule that we wouldn’t talk about work after 8 o’clock, and then I kind of tagged the sentence with ‘unless it’s an argument and I’m winning.’ But we don’t even have time to argue, because there’s too many good things to be doing in the world to be debating about anything other than what we should put as a priority.”
The years ahead are full of promise for Jackson. He has two stage productions in the works: Blue Water, which sees Jackson’s “Blue Water” song serve as the title for a multimedia presentation with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra; and Sweet Grass, a musical-dance piece, scripted by Jackson and Michael O’Brien.
As well, he’s working with the producers behind Cold Pursuit on developing a TV series, hosting a third season of APTN docuseries Red Earth Uncovered and working on a docudrama called Heal Thyself, for which he has big dreams. “It is a transformative model that, ultimately, if it’s embraced, will change how people look at health – body, mind and spirit – and afford people the opportunity to create health for themselves, for their communities and their families,” he says.
Editor’s note: Following this piece, Jackson has launched digital variety series Almighty Voices in response to the numerous members of Canada’s music community impacted by COVID-19. Starting this Sunday (April 5) on YouTube and AlmightyVoices.ca, the hour-long video series hosted by Jackson will air 12 weekly episodes in support of the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit providing counselling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community. Featuring Canadian music and artists such as singer-songwriter/philanthropist Susan Aglukark, actor/singer Cynthia Dale and JUNO Award-winner Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Almighty Voices is supported by Universal Music, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, The Walrus, CPO, Joe Media Group, Eric Alper Public Relations, Echohill Web Sites, and Mobile Giving Foundation, in an effort to raise funds for the Unison Benevolent Fund.
Playback’s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame was founded in 2007 to recognize extraordinary achievements in the Canadian entertainment industry. Inductees are selected by a jury of their peers.
Main image courtesy of Rafal Wegiel. Image of North of 60 courtesy of CBC and image of Cardinal courtesy of Bell Media.