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Last Man Standing

Photo by Bob Hatcher

Hamilton singer-songwriter Tom Wilson was the last to know who and what he was. The pandemic has allowed for a break in which he could explore his identity as a Mohawk artist.  

Tom Wilson is making up for lost time. The Hamilton singer-songwriter turned painter and author waited 53 years to learn who he is and where he came from. That story came from a happenstance meeting with a stranger about a decade ago who finally confirmed what he long believed – he was adopted.

And rather being the son of Irish-Canadian blind war veteran George Wilson and French-Canadian homemaker Bunny who made a home for Wilson on Hamilton’s east Mountain, he was the son of a woman he believed to be his first cousin and was 75 per cent Mohawk.

In his 2017 book Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home, his clean, bare bones style of writing stares you right in the eye. Like Wilson himself, it is at turns funny, shocking, achingly sad and uncomfortably honest. But at no time does Wilson depict himself as a hero or even with much sympathy.

His accomplishments he diminishes and his weaknesses he flaunts. He writes unflinchingly about the heartbreak of the end of his first marriage, the loneliness of his stint in rehab and the death of his adoptive parents. 

Now he’s deep into writing a second book called Blood Memory

“There are things that resonate with us and we don’t know why. They are already part of us, already inside of us. That’s what this book explores.”

Wilson was supposed to spend the first months of 2022 on the road as frontman for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, supporting the edgy roots band’s eighth album, King of This Town, which was released just before the pandemic struck. Omicron pushed back that tour to the fall.

But Wilson’s been plenty busy with songwriting and collaborations with Cree Métis singer-songwriter and activist Iskwe - who now lives in Hamilton - and Serena Ryder. 

He’s written a play based on his life that will be performed at Theatre Aquarius. There is also a documentary by Métis director Shane Belcourt in the works, spun from his bestselling memoir.

Amidst all that, he donated his archives to McMaster University’s library and established a scholarship for Indigenous students in Bunny’s name.

This may not be a widely shared opinion, but Wilson says the pandemic has been the “happiest time of the last 25 years for me. All the business bullshit went away and I got to do what I want, which is create. I wrote songs for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. I came to the studio and painted.”

There were no airports. No waking up in hotel rooms.

“That life might sound glamorous but after all these years, I couldn't do that again and be okay with it,” Wilson says.

“I’ve been on the stage my whole life now. I didn’t think this was the break I needed, but it was. There is no retirement in this business but I found out that I wasn’t at a loss without performing when I had to give it up.”

On this bright morning, Wilson is working in his studio space at the Cotton Factory on Sherman Avenue North. He’s adding “10,000 dots into the sky” on a large canvas that takes up most of a wall. It’s unlikely he’s calculated that number, but it doesn’t seem an exaggeration given the highly detailed, mesmerizing background. 

He’s been working on this for about a year, the canvas framed by two looming faceless nuns speckled with blood. He plans to fill their black robes with the names of thousands of children who died in the horror of Canada’s residential schools.

Wilson started painting when he quit drinking in the early 1990s. It was an outlet, a way to fill his time and to be productive. He started giving them away.

But a Tom Wilson painting commands thousands of dollars now. He is commissioned to do murals and people “who could spend a summer cycling through wineries in Italy are buying my paintings.”

But the outlet remains the same.

Studio photos by Marta Hewson

“There is a mindfulness to it. I can lose myself for hours in it. It centres me.”

As Wilson toils, Lucy, his spunky, sweet border collie-shepherd mix is never far from his side. He dotes on the young girl, who curls up at the front door if she suspects Wilson might be leaving the house. 

Wilson has been married to his second wife Margo for seven years and they live in an English cottage-style house on a beautiful street off Queen Street just before it climbs up the escarpment.

His daughter, Madeline, and her three children live nearby and Wilson is a doting grandfather. 

To meet his book’s fall deadline, he’s mostly parked the paintbrush in favour of the laptop. 

Wilson says the goal of his books is to “bring honour and shine the light on Mohawk culture and the effects of colonialization on Indigenous communities. I’m telling my story for that reason.”

He mourns never having had a direct connection to the Mohawk language, storytelling, medicines and culture.

“Colonialism almost won in my case.”

Wilson has reconnected with five brothers and sisters and spent time with them in Kahnawake. 

He hasn’t yet met another sister in Trinidad. Many of his family are ironworkers, who travel every week to work on structures in Brooklyn, carrying on a long tradition of Mohawk ironworkers who have built much of the skyline of New York City over several generations.

WIlson says he’s always been aware of being different, that his family didn’t add up, though he couldn’t articulate how or why.

The writing of Beautiful Scars forced him to go to places he otherwise wouldn’t have visited, explains Wilson, whose survival instinct came out in distraction and escape, mostly through alcohol, drugs and sex. That cost him his first marriage and meant he didn’t see children Madeline and Thompson nearly as much as he wanted as they grew up.

“The first time I sat down to write, I wrote with such a black heart and anger about being lied to my entire life. But when I started to write about Bunny and George, I felt as if I was three years old again. They were the centre of my world. I once couldn’t imagine the universe without them. That black edge started to break up.”

Resolution and acceptance only come through opening doors and walking through them, Wilson says.  “In this story, I was the last man standing. I had to tell my version of the truth and I have to stand by it.” Tom Wilson Online

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