360°Sound caught up with Canadian musician and visual artist Tom Wilson, the subject of the engrossing new documentary Beautiful Scars. A three-time Juno Award winner, Wilson is well-known to Canadians and others for his bands Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. Based on Wilson’s 2017 memoir of the same name, Beautiful Scars tells the 63-year-old’s life story and the revelation, in his mid-50s, of who his real mother was and that he was in fact Indigenous Mohawk from the Kahnawake reserve.
Wilson is currently working on another book, Blood Memory, a continuation of the first book about the development of his relationship with his mother Janie and being accepted by the Mohawk territory. The film, which was directed by Shane Belcourt, will make its world premiere on May 2 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: Were you involved in the production or creative direction of the film?
Tom Wilson: We went through a couple directors. Director Shane Belcourt is Métis [a group of Indigenous peoples in Canada]. He’s on the inside of indigenous issues. His father was not only an advocate, he was a negotiator lawyer for Métis rights in Ottawa with the Canadian government. Every day of Shane Belcourt’s life his father would come home from fighting for indigenous rights. Shane’s sister Christi Belcourt is one of the greatest visual artists out of Canada. She’s known all throughout the world for her indigenous paintings.
Having the story directed by an indigenous director was important. He is sensitive to everything from Janie’s residential day school situation to the fact that the story falls under the category of Sixties Scoop. This was in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s, where Royal Canadian Mounted Police just came and took indigenous children off reserves and put them into white homes because they thought it would be a better way of life for Canada, not really for the children.
In 1959, my mother was taken off the reserve and I was born in Hamilton [Ontario], so because of the circumstances of my adoption or my non-adoption and the time frame, I’m considered a Sixties Scoop kid. Even though I don’t think of myself in those terms, that’s really where it lands. An indigenous director was essential to tell this story.
What was your reaction after seeing the final cut?
It took me three attempts to get through the film. It’s a little tough for me to watch. I said when I wrote the book that I was the last man standing and as the last man standing, it was my job to tell the truth or my version of the truth. It seems that my mother, Janie, also felt it was time to tell her story.
On my part, there was one level of throwing it out there. On my mother’s part, that was a huge step of faith and very brave of her to talk like she did in front of the camera. In 82 years, she’s never had the chance to be able to speak like that.
What do you think comes through in the doc that does not in the memoir?
The characters come to life from the book. I think it tells a bit of a different story. It brings life to where all the shadows are in the story. You don’t really get to witness the death of Janie’s sadness and the damage that has been done to her until you put a camera in front of her and she speaks to you and looks you straight in the eye and tells her story. That’s impactful. My words couldn’t get to that depth.
At the start of the film, you said we’re all born an artist and the structure and formalities of school take that way. You said we have our lifetime to get back to being four years old. What do you find to be helpful ways in trying to channel your inner four-year-old and create art?
I lecture at universities and colleges about the creative process and the economics of being an artist no matter what the social or economic climate of the world is – recession, depression, or just the complete madness that we’re living in right now. The fact that you wake up every day with a burning desire to create something that wasn’t there the day before. You go to your computer, and you write, or you go to your Instagram, or write a song or create something visually, that’s the job. The dedication to that job depends on the individual.
I’m at a place in my life where I’m writing a second book, I just wrote a play, we just made a movie. I started an indigenous scholarship at McMaster University, and I’m painting for two exhibits right now. I’m kind of fulfilling the job and the role of somebody who’s working to be an artist. I always say I’m not an artist, I’m working to be an artist. I’ve been a musician for 47 years, but I’m working to be a musician. I’m working on being a great musician and an artist. Those things are all in play. I think that’s what it takes.
When you were in your 50s, you learned you’d been adopted and had Mohawk heritage. How has your life and outlook changed since that revelation?
Now I create and work with the intent of bringing light to the Mohawk culture. Everything that I create in that realm is bringing me closer to the Mohawk culture. Now that I found out I’m indigenous I’m not putting on an Indian costume as much as I’m taking off the Irish guy costume and stepping into my true self. That’s what my art and creative is now; that’s my vehicle and my journey.
How did your secluded early life and upbringing by your adoptive parents Bunny and George influence your decision to pursue a life as a musician?
Some of the things that could have been detrimental to my life were the most productive. The fact that I was alone, I was an only child with two older people. I was left to my own devices to entertain myself for the most part. That was a gift. My creative world is part of my defense mechanism or what I do to survive in this world. I’m not like a fragile gentle flower by any means, but I think that I have a lifetime of training on how to get along without input or without anyone else’s company. You kind of figure that shit out.
What do you view as the key themes of the doc?
The lies we tell to people can affect them for a lifetime; there’s a lesson. Without identity, without knowing who we are, our true selves, we have nothing to offer the world. You can try, but without knowing our identities we can become destructive rather than productive people. We can have difficulties with intimacy. This is a lesson for colonialism. This is a lesson for those of us trying to understand one part of the indigenous experience in North America right now.
What are some things you hope viewers will take away from the film?
Maybe a better understanding of the effects of colonialism on the indigenous world. People are still saying, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know about residential schools.’ Well, it’s because the education system kept the treatment of the indigenous world under wraps. It’s the same reason they’re fighting not to teach race in the United States. Canada has some reconciling to do itself, coming to terms with the fact that right now they have found the dead bodies of close to 10,000 children in this country buried around residential schools. You would think that would set off a giant alarm.
Canada is responsible for one of the worst attempts at genocide and wiping out a nation of people. It’s a biblical amount of children that were murdered. It’s a biblical amount of murdered and missing indigenous. And it’s a biblical act to starve out and not give clean water to indigenous communities. There are a lot of lessons, but there’s a lot of action to be taken. I really hope this film allows at least a positive spin that people can watch and move them to some kind of action to help with indigenous rights. That would be the best thing.
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