Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
His voice is deep, strong and raspy. His words speak of hope, but are tinged with sorrow.
Tom Wilson’s story is similar to many stories of Indigenous children being adopted out into white families, but unique in the fact that the secrets about his lineage were kept by his own family for decades.
Wilson, a singer perhaps best known as lead of the rock band Junkhouse, has spent the past several years “learning how to be a son” to a woman he only knew as his supportive cousin Janie.
“It’s only in the last eight years that I’ve been able to take care of her. She’s 82,” Wilson said about his newly-formed relationship with his birth mother.
“I’m learning how to act like a son at the age of 62 years old. It’s late in the game for the rest of the world to be looking in at it, but it is where it is right now. It’s still developing.”
Wilson has also spent time learning about the community he now knows he is connected to, the Kahnawake First Nation located outside of Montreal. He is educating himself about his Mohawk heritage.
“I’m learning how to connect myself with my homeland right now,” he explained.
In 2017, Wilson published the book Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home.
On May 2, Hot Docs will premiere a documentary called Beautiful Scars based on Wilson’s lifelong struggles and resiliency in a world that put him in a dark place and how he navigated his way through to the discovery of his true biological self. Beautiful Scars is a Cream Films, TVO Original production.
“He is an amazing storyteller. He’s furiously honest and he speaks from his heart,” said director Shane Belcourt (Métis) of Wilson. “He is not trying to sell you anything or be anything other than who he is.”
Janie is present throughout the documentary, which Wilson said was a place where they both could finally speak freely about the events that led to Bunny and George, Janie’s aunt and uncle from her non-Indigenous mother’s side, adopting him.
“It just opened up the door more to the relationship for my mother and I,” he said.
“I always talk about it opening up the door of possibilities to people and that’s what I try to do, but this movie has actually opened up the door of possibilities to my mother and I.”
Wilson reminisces about receiving the first seed of truth about his Indigenous heritage.
He was attending a speaking engagement and the handler for the event explained how her family was good friends with his.
She went on to explain how her grandmother was a friend of Bunny’s.
Wilson joked he couldn’t remember his parents ever having friends, but once he heard the handler’s grandmother’s name, he did remember.
“I remembered her grandmother's name. I hadn’t heard it since I was three or four years old and I remembered that yeah Bunny did have a friend.”
The handler then explained how the two women were such good friends in their younger years that her grandmother was there the day Bunny adopted Wilson.
Stunned, Wilson explained to the woman he had no idea he was adopted.
“From that, a whole world opened up to me,” he said.
A couple weeks later he drove Janie home from his own grandson’s birthday party when he told her the story and the information the handler had disclosed to him. He asked Janie if she ever knew anything about him being adopted and if she would please tell him.
“She turned to me in the van and said ‘Tom, I don’t know how to tell you this. I hope you forgive me, but I’m your mother’. That was the first time she was able to acknowledge that herself,” said Wilson.
Janie had been sworn to secrecy. It was a condition set by Bunny and George to adopt him. She was never to tell anyone, and she didn’t until that day.
“My great aunt Bunny Wilson agreed to take me to keep me in the family, somewhat, but she hid my identity from me like I was in a witness protection program,” said Wilson.
For 54 years Janie represented life outside of the Wilson home to Tom. She was young and vibrant, always full of interesting stories about her Mohawk family from her dad’s side.
She was always present for Tom through the years. Birthdays, hockey games, graduations, the birth of his children. She was always there for the important stuff.
“Janie was confined to her position as a cousin,” Wilson said. “She was sworn that she would never reveal our relationship, our identities, and she didn’t. That’s a tough go.”
But to Wilson, Janie was always a light in an otherwise quiet house of solitude.
Bunny and George were older. They didn’t have friends. “They didn’t even have a record player,” said Wilson. George was a Second World War veteran who had lost his sight during the fighting and had a metal plate in his head.
“It was kind of an odd place for a kid to grow up,” joked Wilson, adding he always had questions about his parents. Even when he was as young as four, he asked Bunny why she was so much older than other parents on their street.
“She said to me when I was four years old and again when I was 14 years old ‘there’s secrets about you that I will take to my grave.’ Kind of a heavy thing to say to a kid,” he said, adding that Bunny did take those secrets to her grave.
Despite the gnawing feeling that something was missing in his life, Wilson was always creating and had a very successful career as the lead singer of a few bands, achieving fame with the 90s band Junkhouse, and later with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. He has sold many of his original paintings, and despite being dyslexic has written a book.
“People who find independence early in life, who are able to maybe not define themselves but able to define what it is they want to do with their life to get themselves out of where they are, that is what my case was,” Wilson said of his journey growing up and leaving Bunny and George’s home and embarking on the often hard life of the rock scene.
“Tom is a fearless artist that courageously wears his heart on his sleeve and, for us, he puts it on the screen,” said Belcourt.
“His reclamation journey isn’t about putting on an Indigenous costume. This is ultimately a story about taking the costume off, and revealing Tehoh’ahake, (Two Roads), his Mohawk name.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.