Tom Jackson: A Legacy of Compassion

Photo © Courtesy of Tom Jackson

By Raye Mocioiu

Tom Jackson is a man of many talents. An actor, a musician, a producer, and an activist, Jackson is a certified entertainment legend with a list of achievements and accolades spanning decades.

Known for movie and television roles like North of 60 and Shining Time Station and his folk-pop discography, beloved across the country, Jackson’s career has touched countless lives—but his ascent to fame was far from easy.

After moving to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his family during his teens, Jackson left school at the age of 15. He spent seven years living on the streets—a time that, while tinged with darkness, created beautiful friendships and eventually set him on a path that changed his life. Jackson says it was “pure luck” that got him his start, beginning with learning to play the guitar with the help of a friend, and later, with just three songs in his guitar-playing repertoire, being asked to appear on a guest interview at CFRW AM Winnipeg, where he was told that he should consider radio.

“It was the middle of winter, and I remember leaving the radio station—it was -34°C—and walking a few blocks before turning back to ask, ‘What did you mean?’” Jackson recalled. “I began by volunteering, and not long after, I got a call from Ross Dobson, a CBC Radio producer who offered me the opportunity to host my own radio show. I discovered radio has no colour.”

A Life Saved

After years of success, Jackson found himself at rock bottom, looking for a way to help others when he needed help himself. At his lowest point, he had a moment where he realized he could change his life for the better and become addicted to helping others.

Looking back, he said he realized that the darkest time of his life led him to the light—every day since has been defined by saving lives.

Since then, Jackson has used his life experiences and his voice as a tool for change, helping those in need and lending his efforts to a multitude of projects and charities.

© Chelsea Brooke Roisum courtesy Canadian Red Cross

“On September 12th, 2001, the day after 9/11, my friends and I staged a concert at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary,” Jackson shared. “We called it The Vigil. On September 13th, we wrote a cheque to the Red Cross for $100,000 in aid of the 9/11 victims.”

Jackson has since become an ambassador for the Canadian Red Cross, actively fundraising for vulnerable communities worldwide.

“Tom is generous, curious and caring,” said Jenn McManus, Vice President at the Canadian Red Cross. “He loves people, their stories, their past and their future. I often call him the ‘people whisperer’ because of his ability to block out all that is going on around him in a crisis and focus clearly on who is before him—to listen, hear their voice, understand their perspective, ideas and how they are doing. Among many personal moments, Humboldt, Sask. [the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash] comes to my mind. Tom was at the community arena with Red Cross volunteers during a vigil and I saw him among the families: picking up crumpled tissues, used water bottles, setting up chairs and collecting garbage, while devastated families gathered around him. It will be a memory forever embedded in my memory. He is humble, helpful, empathetic and a true community spirit-builder.”

Earlier this year, Jackson, a Juno award-winning singer and songwriter, was inspired to create a music special drawing attention to the war in Ukraine. The special, produced by Tomali Pictures Ltd., Jackson’s production company in collaboration with his wife, Alison, sought to raise awareness and funds for the Red Cross.

“It was inspired by a Calgary friend who said, ‘I wouldn’t let my children watch the news because they would go to bed with tears in their eyes.’” Jackson said. “I thought about his children and the 7.5 million children of Ukraine. Then it was quite simple…I spoke with my tribe of like-minds. Conrad Sauve, President and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross Society, said it best: ‘We need to help kids learn to be kids again.’”

A big man with a big heart, in 1992, Tom became a Canada 125 Medal recipient for his significant philanthropic contributions. During the pandemic, Jackson produced and hosted the 12-episode online variety series Almighty Voices where artists and thought leaders delivered performances and messages to create joy, health, and dollars for Unison Benevolent Fund, a charitable agency providing emergency relief services to the Canadian music community.

In 2000, Jackson was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in November 2020, he was promoted to Companion—the highest designation within the Order.

“I felt this is a validation by my peers. I am empowered to continue,” Jackson said of his promotion.

Philanthropy is a driving force for Jackson; his extensive charitable work, including the long-running Huron Carole Christmas concert tours—a beloved event Canada-wide—speaks to his willingness to be on the lookout for those in need. Featuring Jackson and numerous other Canadian singers and performers, The Huron Carole troupe travels across the country each year, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and food services to benefit Canada’s hungry and homeless.

Over the COVID-19 pandemic, Jackson took the concert tour online, unwavering in his support, and found that a virtual tour was more accessible for those in remote areas of the country. The Huron Carole will continue virtually, raising funds for local charities, food banks, and drop-in centres. In its place, Jackson has formed a new holiday tour called Stories, Songs, and Santa Causes, an evening of original music, sing-along tunes, and signature Christmas music. Both virtual and live, The Huron Carole and Stories, Songs, and Santa Causes are excellent ways to participate in positivity and exercise the spirit of giving.

The events, Jackson has previously shared, “pay tribute to all the angels around us. Sometimes they’re invisible—just like you and me when we need help. So if you’re down and out, and need help, find someone who needs it more than you. You’ll feel much better.”

The Huron Carole Christmas Tour © Courtesy of Tom Jackson

The Path to Reconciliation

At 18, while surveying in the core of the University of Winnipeg for the Institute of Urban Studies, Jackson’s world was changed. Asking passersby why they stayed in Winnipeg, Jackson, born to a Cree mother and English father, recalled feeling shocked to learn how many Indigenous families did so out of poverty and yet were unable to access welfare services for fear of losing their children. He knew he had to find a way to make a difference, and throughout his career, Jackson has found countless ways.

In 2016, Jackson was awarded the ImagineNATIVE August Schellenberg Award of Excellence, which recognizes professional and personal achievements by an Indigenous actor. Jackson was also honoured with a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for his humanitarianism.

Music has long been Jackson’s preferred method of expression, earning him the nickname “Minstrel with a Message.” In over 40 years of songwriting, Jackson has used music as a vehicle for change and awareness.

In May 2021, when the remains of 215 children were found near Kamloops, B.C., Jackson released the song Lost Souls, which highlights the grim reality of what residential school survivors experienced and gives voice to those who have been lost and the victims who have been silenced.

“In the world of Truth and Reconciliation, we will not find reconciliation until we find truth,” Jackson said of the song. “The truth may be painful, but pain is part of the process of the sacred healing journey. Although the work is difficult, it will directly contribute to the health and well-being of the present and future generations. Two hundred and fifteen lost souls now have a voice.”

Truth and Reconciliation are on people’s minds as awareness grows around the country. This spring, Jackson joined forces with Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and numerous other Canadian creatives to create The Bear and the Wild Rose, an online video series of stories and songs about love, hope, resilience, and dreams.

“I thought it would be a fine opportunity to produce health for a world that needs hope, empathy, faith, and love,” Jackson shared. “I can’t speak for the audience, but for my part, the journey was inspired, and inspiring. In my opinion, art that results in proactive change has indelible value.”

“We, as a wounded species, must learn to forgive but never forget,” he continued. “The healing journey may be painful, but it will come. We must pave the way with compassion…help those who are pathless. Truth and Reconciliation need love.”

‘Love’ is a word that Jackson shared is one of his greatest sources of inspiration and healing—and specified that he means love as a verb.

“It’s like a pill…call someone and tell ’em you love ’em! It’s good for them, and it’s good for you,” Jackson advised. “Ask them to do the same and then go and do something for somebody else. Repeat as needed.”

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