Tom Wilson Launches Indigenous Scholarship
The ever-busy creative renaissance man pays it forward with a new initiative with Hamilton's McMaster University designed to boost the education of a deserving student.
By Kerry Doole
Celebrated musician Tom Wilson has established a scholarship in partnership with McMaster University in Hamilton, his home city.
The Tom Wilson Indigenous Scholarship Award in Honour of Bunny Wilson (Tom's presumptive mother) is designed to support year 1 Indigenous students from Ontario secondary schools completing an undergraduate program in any faculty at McMaster.
In a press release, Wilson (best known as a member of roots-rock trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and for his solo project, Lee Harvey Osmond) states the scholarship “was established to help honour, love, respect and shine a light back on the culture I have been introduced to later in life, and to honour the charitable nature that Bunny Wilson who raised me embodied throughout her life. This award is dedicated to empowering the next generation of indigenous people that will lead us into the future.”
To help raise funds and awareness for the Scholarship, Wilson headlines a concert on May 1st at The RL Wilson Concert Hall at McMaster University. He explains that “the concert and associated ticket sales will be managed by my team, with McMaster providing in-kind support e.g. use of space, assistance with logistics and ‘red tape’, and support with promotions and ticket sales. My goal for year one is to raise $50.000 for the scholarship.”
To learn more about the initiative, we sat down for tea with Tom last weekend. He notes that the idea for the scholarship came after McMaster approached him about acquiring Wilson’s archives for the university’s library.
“Previously, I hadn’t even known about the McMaster Library and archives,” he confesses. “Then, about seven years ago, I was asked to be the music curator of the ceremony where [his good friend] Bruce Cockburn handed over his archives there. Recently Mac asked me about acquiring mine and I said yes."
“I decided I had to do something forward-thinking, and I wanted to do something for the Indigenous community. When I think about the work I can do, am asked to do and am happy to and honoured to be part of, it’s devastating. This heartbreak as a result of colonialism is killing the spirit of this country Murdered and missing indigenous women? Child suicide? Clean water. These are emergencies we wake up to every day. Every Indigenous baby being born is a win against colonialism.' The scholarship supports this further in that every Indigenous youth that makes it to university, that’s a positive thing.”
“In order to do something positive I want to pay for someone’s education. That is one thing that is off someone’s plate so that it can hopefully clear the path so they can do something good for the clan.”
Wilson adds that “I have made use of the fact that that I’ve got my foot in the door at McMaster to move something forward. The University and the Indigenous Studies program at Mac is thrilled someone has stepped up for this, so it must be something that doesn’t happen every day.”
The scholarship recipient will be free to choose to study in any field at McMaster, not just Indigenous Studies. “It would be foolish to limit people in what their passions are. I am all against people feeling limited," says Wilson. The selection of students for the scholarship will be made by a McMaster scholarship committee that will include Wilson.
He makes sure to credit his late mother Bunny for his charitable credo. "She was the most giving and charitable person I have ever known. I was brought up taught that if something good happens to you, you should always give something back. That spirit is part of what is driving me today."
The May 1 fundraiser will incorporate Wilson’s Mohawk Symphony, featuring orchestrated versions of material from his much-praised Lee Harvey Osmond album, Mohawk, one nominated for a Juno last week for Contemporary Folk Album of the Year. The performance will feature noted horn player/arranger Darcy Hepner, a string quartet, plus piano and a rhythm section.
Wilson says “we are going to have the Indigenous writer in residence at Mac perform a poem, and the Little Creek Singers will fix the room up spiritually with a drum ceremony. We want to bring something inspirational to the stage. It’s the old Mickey Rooney thing – how are we going to make some money? Put on a show. It’s something that people will show up to, and maybe it can raise another $10K. I’m also going around to people I know. I would never go round to anybody to ask for money for myself, but it seems to be easy to ask for money for this."
The day before the concert, the Tom Wilson archives will be presented to McMaster at an invite-only ceremony. Musical curator here will be Darcy Hepner, described by Wilson as “a real pal who pours his heart into his work. He has played with BB King, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Aretha, Manhattan Transfer, an endless list.”
Scholarship, archives and a Juno nod aside, 2020 is shaping up as a banner year for Wilson. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are celebrating their 25th anniversary and recently signed their first major-label record deal, with Warner Music Canada. A new album, King Of This Town, has just been released, Ontario shows are imminent, and BARK recently had the honour of playing Nashville roots music shrine The Ryman Auditorium, home of the Grand Ole Opry.
Wilson informs us he is writing a second memoir, following the considerable success of 2017’s Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home. That book probed the life-changing discovery (at age 53) that he was actually of Mohawk heritage and that the couple who raised him in Hamilton, Bunny and George Wilson, were not his birth parents.
This bombshell sparked an ongoing and creatively productive journey to explore his indigenous roots, a process depicted in both Beautiful Scars and on the album Mohawk.
“The new book is entitled Blood Memory and is all about identity. I’m due to submit that to Random House by September,” says Wilson.
As if that is not enough on his plate, this creative renaissance man (did we mention he’s also an in-demand visual artist?) is collaborating with playwright Shaun Smyth on a stage adaptation of material from Beautiful Scars. Plans are to workshop this in April, with a goal of public performances in 2021.
This project is helping spawn another Tom Wilson album, he explains. “The music we are recording is completely inspired by the play, and that’s an interesting way to write. I’ve been encouraged to have music in the play, but I’m not going to rest on past achievements and use [Junkhouse anthem] Shine.”
"Do I need to think about making a record as I‘m embarking on a Blackie tour? Yes, I do. This is what I love doing. “You just keep doing shit because you love it!”
Tickets for the May 1 Tom Wilson scholarship fundraiser are available here