Tony Wilson admits he got off lightly, compared to many of the young offenders incarcerated at St. Joseph’s Training School in Alfred, Ontario, which operated from 1933 into the 1970s.
Yes, he was put into solitary confinement (at 14), and suffered both physical abuse from the Christian Brothers that ran the institution and bullying from his fellow inmates, but that was nothing compared to the psychic scarring others had to endure.
In the 1990s, more than two dozen priests and lay wardens from the facility and others like it were convicted of sexually or physically molesting their young charges, and in 2004, Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty offered victims a public apology. Investigations might soon resume: Hamilton, Ontario MP David Sweet, held at St. Joseph’s during the same time as Wilson, is calling for a public inquiry into the way “juvenile delinquents” were treated in what was then a largely Catholic-run system.
Wilson, now a Hornby Island resident and a beloved member of Vancouver’s creative-music community, says that he’s mostly put his demons behind him.
“I kind of got over that in my mid-40s, when I went to rehab and I did all the therapy,” he tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his home. “I let a lot of the anger and the resentment go then. But it took me many years—I mean, until my mid-40s, so 30 years later.”
He’s also found creative ways to process any residual angst, through music but also through writing, first with A Day’s Life, which presents a lightly fictionalized version of his time as an addict in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and now with Looking Back, a short memoir of his teenage incarceration. The book, along with a new CD from his band Burn Down the Cornfield, will be released at the Fox Cabaret this week.
The staged version of Looking Back is a good indication of how far Wilson has come. A multimedia production that includes narration, projected images, and improvised movement from Kokoro Dance founder Barbara Bourget, it also employs a 13-piece band that’s part jazz ensemble, part string octet. And while the stories Wilson tells in the book have a horrific edge, the music will at times be lush and lovely. The guitarist and composer explains that he’s gone from making music for catharsis to finding a more contemplative kind of redemption in sound.
“The music can still be dense and maybe confusing,” he explains, “but a lot of it is really quite simple. It’s just about creating a certain feeling that, hopefully, is comforting and healing… Well, I don’t know about healing, but comforting, for everyone. And it’s not trying to be hip or anything; it’s just trying to be what I can imagine would be something that could help someone. Or it helps me. I guess maybe that’s the thing. I don’t know about helping anyone else, but the music helps me, and so I just kind of put it out there and hope that maybe other people like it.”
As for the book, he continues, “I’m not pulling any punches here. It is what it is, and I’m just telling it as it is—but this shit is still going on, man, so I need to say something!”
Tony Wilson releases Looking Back at the Fox Cabaret on Thursday (April 18).