Tom Jackson: An Exclusive Interview with The Big Guy

Credit Bill Borgwardt

Tom Jackson (Photo by Bill Borgwardt)

Tom Jackson has been an actor, singer, producer and activist for over 40 years, well known for his dedication to helping the less fortunate. He was born on the One Arrow Reserve in Saskatchewan to an English father and Cree mother, and was raised largely in Winnipeg. With his distinctive bass baritone voice and accomplished guitar-playing, Tom has recorded 16 albums. His latest release, “Ballads Not Bullets”, is in support of the Canadian Red Cross. Tom annually takes to the road with The Huron Carole Benefit Concert Series, this year marking 27 years of cross Canada travel that has raised millions of dollars for food banks and other charitable organizations.

Tom is also recognizable for his TV role as Billy Twofeathers in PBS’s Shining Time Station, and his guest roles on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Law & Order – but it’s his six years starring in CBC TV’s North of Sixty that still draws emails and many hugs from longtime fans. A long list of awards include the Queen’s Jubilee Medals in 2002 and 2012, Juno and Gemini Humanitarian Awards, and the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2014. He has been awarded nine honorary university degrees, and was invested as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2000. Tom served as Chancellor of Trent University from 2009 to 2013.

Kolbe Times: You grew up with nurturing parents in a home infused with love that was expressed not only in words but, as you have said a number of times, went beyond words and was defined by action. Can you talk about how that shaped your own character?

Tom Jackson: Growing up, my parents were like gods to me. My dad was quiet and strong, a man of peace. Mom was very outgoing, very giving, and sensitive to the world around her. Certain things that my sister and I learned from our parents became indelibly written on our character. One thing was seeing challenges and difficulties in life as stepping-stones.

My family tended to be more pro-active than most. And so, from watching how my parents lived their lives, it’s helped me to never get stuck thinking about what I have to do tomorrow – I always think, just do it today. Why wait?

Kolbe Times: You spent some time in your teenage years and later in your adult life on the streets. What were some of the important things you learned during those times?

Tom Jackson: I have to say, when I was living on the streets as a teenager, it was by choice. It wasn’t because of financial hardships of my family. I was 14 years old when we moved to Winnipeg, and I was distracted and attracted. I related strongly to all my friends and buddies – and many of them lived on the streets. So I was there, too. But it was a time of learning the ropes in life. One thing I learned is the social and economic reasons behind ghettos, and why they develop. You go places where there are other people like you, where you can give and receive love.

Another interesting thing – when I was living on the street, I was very fortunate to have the teachings of the “university of the pool hall”. I learned about honour; what it means to keep your word, and be part of a community that cares for each other. And all those things I learned have been very applicable as I moved on in my life. In fact, I know some people in the communities I move in right now that could use a few lessons from that university.

At a certain point in my adult life when I was in my thirties and addicted to drugs, I found myself living in a hole in the ground. It’s true. I was literally living in the crawl space under the house of the guy who dealt me drugs, in downtown Toronto. But I was the sole architect of my hole in the ground.

Addiction is like a fish hook, tugging at you forever. But it’s not impossible to get out of that hole – and I learned two secrets that got me out of there. One is, you have to stop thinking about yourself. With the distraction of helping someone else who needs hope more than you do, your life will change…but only if you become active. I’m still an addict, but I’m addicted to something different now. It’s free, it’s a better high, and it lasts forever. We can all get affected by a good cause, but even greater is to cause an effect. The second secret is, when you’re at the point when you think you can’t get up, look for a star and have the courage to reach for it and grab it.

Kolbe Times: Your music and acting talents must bring you great personal joy, but your remarkable, ongoing track record of humanitarian work suggests you see a bigger purpose in all this. Can you talk a little about that?

Ballads not Bullets CDTom Jackson: I became a singer when I started focusing on singing for others, and not just for myself. If I have the kind of conviction necessary to convey my words and my thoughts, the audience will get it, too – and enjoy it as much as I do. Lately, it’s been great. I haven’t enjoyed playing and singing this much since I was sixteen years old. There was a period of time when that wasn’t the case. But I see now that it is the imperfection in what I do that makes my music-making different. It sounds funny but it’s true. It allows me to have faults that you can see, and if you can live with those faults, then I can live with them. They allow me to allow you to be a human being. And if I can laugh and make you laugh, it’s simply a byproduct of all that.

All the things I’ve gotten involved with are an extension of that lesson I learned about having the courage to reach for a star. It’s a message that I want to keep sharing with people, and I know that someone else up there wrote the script. I also know that what energizes me, what gives me the oxygen I need, is being active and helping people any way I can.

For more information about Tom Jackson and the schedule of the upcoming Huron Carole tour, visit tomjackson.ca

Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tomjacksononline

Check out his latest project at www.balladsnotbullets.com

Listen to Tom’s single “Blue Water”:

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