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How a homeless man saved Tom Jackson

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There is a place on Google where you can find a list of famous people who have been homeless for a time.

People like Daniel Craig of James Bond fame, who slept on a park bench as a struggling actor; Shania Twain, who, at 13, spent time in a Toronto shelter with her family, and... well, hello.

Here's someone you might have actually met.

"Tom Jackson... singer-actor (streets of Winnipeg, Canada)."

I vaguely recall hearing about Tom's early years of living on the street.

What sent me searching for more of the story was an email announcing Tom is scheduled to be the guest speaker at the Salvation Army's fifth annual Hope in the City Breakfast Wednesday at the Winnipeg Convention Centre.

The breakfast goes from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., but I couldn't wait that long to hear Tom's story.

He was just getting off a WestJet plane in his new hometown of Calgary when he returned my call.

The man who made his name in entertainment acting in the CBC-TV series North of 60 is north of 60 himself now. He turned 61 last month.

But his unmistakable bass baritone is as strong as ever.

When I ask him about being homeless as a young man, Tom talks instead about living on the street.

"I was there by choice," he says. "I could have gone home at any time."

He says his home was "loving and nurturing."

He chose the street at age 15 because he found a different sense of family and, of course, lifestyle.

"That took me to the streets."

He survived by hustling pool and finding warmth and safety where he could, sleeping in stairwells and looking for couches to crash on, or beds to cuddle up in. Even today he makes it sound romantic.

He doesn't talk about the danger unless you ask, and not necessarily even then.

Yes, he belonged to a gang, but that's where that story ends.

"I have no regrets of the time when I was young living on the street," he adds. "It was a very loving, nurturing experience which I wouldn't trade if I could."


"I think because it taught me so much."

It took a "cornerstone" event, as he calls it, to get him off the street as a young man.

And again later in life.

The first time it happened, he and his brother, Bernie, were doing a door-to-door survey for the University of Winnipeg on inner-city living conditions. They came across 17 people living in three rooms.

The family had moved to the city from the reserve hoping to find jobs and a better life. The ones working who found jobs were two of the girls and they were working the street to support the family.

"We got to thinking about who we are," Tom says, "and how we can help these people out of the situation."


Thus began Tom Jackson's enlightenment as a man and, in particular, as Metis man.

But it was only the beginning.

By 1985 his career path had taken him to Toronto and by 1987 he was homeless again. Except this time there was nothing remotely romantic about it.

"I became addicted to cocaine. I had taken my life and put it up my nose, and I ended up living in crawl space under my drug deal's house."

It was in the midst of this misery, that Tom chanced upon an "angel" -- his word -- who saved his life.

It was late December, 1987.

About 2 a.m..

Tom had just left a place where he'd been playing pool and was on his way back to his crawl space when he came across another homeless man laying motionless on the street.

Tom had watched others pass him, but he couldn't.

That homeless man everyone was ignoring could have been him.

He stopped and asked the man if he was OK. He wasn't.

The man's eyes were open, but he couldn't speak.

Tom summoned an ambulance

The homeless man on the street survived, and so did the homeless man from the crawl space.

Tom doesn't know if what he did actually saved the man's life.

This much he does know, though.

"He saved my life, because I found helping him saved me."

That's how Tom found his new higher than high.

"I became addicted to saving lives."

Within two days friends had managed to get him back in Winnipeg, and out him up in the Royal Albert.

It was from there a week later that Tom and friends bought a few turkeys, rounded up some homeless people and created a Christmas Eve dinner that continues to this day.

Two decades later Tom Jackson has raised millions for food banks across Canada been awarded eight honourary university degrees, is chancellor of Trent University and is a member of the Order of Canada.

All that from a street kid who left school in Grade 9. Not realizing, of course, that he was about to enroll in a lifelong doctorate of humanity from the university of the street.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2009 B1

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