Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jackson happy to raise his voice in support of food banks, but wishes it weren't a necessary annual tradition

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Jackson, centre, with fellow Huron Carole performers.

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Jackson, centre, with fellow Huron Carole performers.

Every December, for almost 30 years, Tom Jackson has hit the road to help Canada's hungriest communities.

And every December, for almost 30 years, he has marvelled at both the generosity of Canadians and just how much work is left to do when it comes to ending Canada's hunger crisis.

The Canadian actor/musician is the brains behind The Huron Carole, a perennially popular touring variety show that raises funds and awareness for food banks across the country. Jackson, along with country crooner George Canyon, up-and-coming country duo One More Girl, Irish-born singer/songwriter Beverley Mahood and R&B/soul singer Shannon Gaye, will be performing in almost 20 communities large and small on this year's national tour, which stops in Winnipeg Wednesday night. Tickets are $50 and proceeds support Winnipeg Harvest.

Named for Canada's first Christmas carol -- composed in 1641 by Father Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit priest known for his missionary work with the people of Huronia -- The Huron Carole was put on hold in 2004 so Jackson could galvanize smaller centres via a more intimate charity concert series called Singing for Supper.

The Huron Carole was revived last year after Jackson read a stat in a newspaper that rattled him: food bank usage was up 100 per cent. The need, it seemed, was greater than ever before.

Jackson, of course, was happy to reprise the successful tour -- with Susan Aglukark, Sarah Slean, Matt Dusk and Del Barber in tow -- but he's frustrated he had to.

"The bad news is, I still have a job," Jackson says. "Our future is at risk, our future being in the hands of our children. Forty per cent of food bank users are children. When I look into the eyes of those children, I see we have a beautiful future."

When The Huron Carole began in earnest in 1987, Jackson was living in downtown Toronto and had began volunteering with Council Fire, a cultural agency that works to combat homelessness among Toronto's aboriginal community. The agency was experiencing a serious hamper shortage that year, so Jackson called upon his musical friends to put on a benefit concert to raise funds to buy food. They didn't raise much money, but their call to action was heard.

"The first year really captured the imagination of the community," Jackson says. "It caused the community to react in such a way that, the day after the concert, there were cars and trucks for a mile, full of food."

A couple years later, Jackson found himself back in Winnipeg, the city he grew up in, working with a nascent Winnipeg Harvest. At that time, food banks were rapidly proliferating in Canada in response to economic downturn in the early '80s and welfare cuts in the 1990s.

"Winnipeg Harvest was in its St. Boniface location and was worried about having enough money to cover rent," he recalls. "We volunteered to organize an event similar to the one in Toronto. It was successful enough to get Harvest through the winter."

Nearly 30 years later, Winnipeg Harvest services over 320 social agencies -- including food banks, soup kitchens, youth programs and drop-in-centres -- in Manitoba every month. In 2011 alone, Winnipeg Harvest distributed 5.5 million kilograms of food.

According to Jackson, The Huron Carole has raised $200 million for food banks like Winnipeg Harvest across the country so that they can continue to do the vital work they do. While Jackson is frustrated by a need that continues to grow instead of shrink, he's buoyed by how many people are working hard to bring those statistics down.

"It's encouraging to acknowledge those working in the trenches. Their efforts are leading in the right direction. When the heart leads, the mind follows."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2013 C1

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Updated on Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 6:47 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline

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