Breaking the Silence

Tom Jackson’s words come in a slow, measured cadence when he talks about hunger and poverty.

It is the second day of Jackson’s current Christmas concert tour, ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime.

His Twitter feed for the day reads, “Poverty is often silent. It’s time to break that silence.”

On the phone from Parry Sound, Ontario, he elaborates thoughtfully, carefully.

“There’s a disease out there called hunger. But it’s a silent disease, and it is certainly owned by the impoverished,” he says.

“When people are hungry or in need, they often keep it to themselves. But in this glorious country that we live in, we have to pay some attention to those who live in our backyard, who are our neighbours.”

Some people know Jackson best as a singer-songwriter, particularly for his sonorous baritone version of “The Huron Carole”.

Others know him as a film and TV actor, particularly for his role as Peter Kenidi on the CBC series North of 60.

But it’s the Metis performer’s philanthropy that earned him a handful of honorary doctorates, a cherished position as an Officer of the Order of Canada, and his current role as Chancellor of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

When Jackson takes to the Yukon Arts Centre stage with four band-mates next week, it will be part of a 40-year commitment to help people who are hungry or homeless.

“There’s always going to be haves and have-nots, but it’s upon us to narrow that gap. It’s upon us to be diligent and be committed, and believe that we can make a difference in our world,” Jackson says.

“I don’t have the great solution. I am a band-aid, and I’m proud to be a band-aid,” he says.

In Jackson’s teen years, there was little indication he would go on to achieve widespread recognition as a performer or a philanthropist, let alone become a university chancellor.

“I didn’t even know what a chancellor was,” he laughs.

After quitting school at age 15, Jackson spent several years living on the streets before pursuing his dual career of singing and acting.

“It would be inappropriate for me to suggest that I was there for any other reason but choice. I was there because I wanted to be there,” he admits.

Some of those he met “in those back alleys and those dark places, living in crawl spaces” remain loyal friends, he says.

“Those people that I know so well that are living in that state, not by choice, in fact were my saving grace when I was a young man.”

One night, Jackson experienced what he calls a defining moment.

“I was wandering around the streets in the middle of the night and I ran into a guy who was in distress, and I gave him a hand,” he recalls.

“And the profound effect it had on me by that one act … When I say profound, the satisfaction that it gave me, the rush that it gave me, was so intense, pronounced and clear that I realized that my life was actually worth something,” he adds.

“There actually was something that I could achieve. And that defined my life from that point to this current day.”

Over the years, Jackson has used his voice, and his organizational skills, to help raise approximately $200 million for countless charitable causes, including assisting victims of two major Red River floods, people displaced by fire in Slave Lake, Alberta, and other natural disasters.

His efforts have helped support women’s shelters, addiction centres, youth and family services and suicide prevention programs.

For 17 years, his Huron Carole concert tour was a Christmas highlight in cities across Canada, with more than 20 performers playing to theatre audiences averaging 2,000 people, in support of the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

In 2005, he re-branded the show as Singing for Supper and started to focus on raising funds for food banks in smaller communities.

“At some point, I went, ‘I have to take a look at this, because if I’m spending $400,000 to raise $401,000, even though it’s great and it creates awareness, I just needed to re-think it,'” he explains.

The result exceeded his expectations.

In one community, for example, he did a series of concerts in a 350-room hall in support of a family and children’s services organization.

“Five years, five shows, we raised over a million dollars for that organization.”

While the current tour, ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, will benefit other groups besides food banks, Jackson’s goal is still to help those who are helping people in need.

“There are legions of angels without wings that work in the trenches, that serve those people’s needs,” he says.

“That’s really what my mandate is… to support organizations that deal with people who are impoverished in this country.”

‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime will play at the Yukon Arts Centre on Friday, December 16 at 8 p.m. Donations of food and cash will go to the Whitehorse Food Bank.

The Yukon Arts Centre is also donating $2 from each ticket to the food bank, and arts centre staff will contribute another $200 to the cause.

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