Canada Reads author Jesse Thistle answered your questions — here's what he had to say
The author of From the Ashes answered fan questions in a special Facebook Q&A
Due to the ongoing developments with COVID-19 and the related travel concerns, Canada Reads made the difficult decision to postpone the debates until we can convene our stellar panel of advocates in front of a live audience.
You can read the transcript of the Q&A with From the Ashes author Jesse Thistle below. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Thistle is a Métis-Cree academic specializing in Indigenous homelessness, addiction and inter-generational trauma. For Thistle, these issues are more than just subjects on the page. After a difficult childhood, Thistle spent much of his early adulthood struggling with addiction while living on the streets of Toronto. His memoir, From the Ashes, details how his issues with abandonment and addiction led to homelessness, incarceration and his eventual redemption through higher education.
Hi everyone! Jesse here. I will be answering for the next hour or so. Glad to meet and talk with all you humans.
I would like to know from each author if they had the idea for their books for a long time — was this something they worked on for years, thought about for years or more of a 'sit down and write it all' in a shorter period. Thanks!
I am an accidental author. My book kind of fell into my lap. I was approached by Simon & Schuster to write my memoir after I won a bunch of awards in school. So, no, I wasn't trying to write a book — it really is just a collection of my AA 4th steps memories. That's why the book is in such small bite-sized chapters. I wrote my AA 4th step like that. So I am lucky, I guess, to have the opportunity to share my life. It kind of just happened.
What were the toughest chapters/moments in the book to write? Why?
The chapters about the murder were probably the hardest as I was deeply traumatized by being involved and having to protect myself in the way that I did. Next, I would say the club scene when I got back from Vancouver was hardest. Men aren't allowed to admit to things like that happening. Shame and hurt bubbled up and made me want to hide in my addictions again after I wrote both the club scene and the murder pre-trial. I am dealing with CPTSD from both still. Writing the book helped a little, but it is still hard to talk about publicly.
Did he ever get any information on his missing father? I think not knowing would be so hard. Loved this book.
No, last I heard from the Peel Police is that they had one lead of a homeless man in Rouge Valley beside Toronto, but the man was found and questioned and it wasn't my Pops. The only people who know aren't talking, if anyone knows at all what happened to him. The fact that no one came forth years ago makes it hard for police to track any leads today. Records get expunged, witnesses die, people forget. It's a shame really, I thought my book with his missing person report at the end might bring leads, but so far nothing.
Speaking from your own lived experiences, what changes would you like to see happen, regarding the system's treatment of Indigenous people, rehabilitation, and homelessness?
From my own lived experiences, I would like to see more money put into in-reach for people coming out of prison. Either in-reach for rehab or to secure housing. And this should be available for long and short-term offenders. The immediacy of catching people as they come out is an opportunity to stop people returning to the old life they knew. I think the feds really need to sink a lot of money into an Indigenous housing strategy — like 10 or 20 billion — and that money goes directly to Indigenous organizations (all levels of the organization must have at least 60 per cent Indigenous front-line staff, admin, management and executive to qualify). They already are doing the work and understand the problem. The feds need to give them the right amount of money to make a real dent in the issue.
It was hard to write through my past and make sense of it. But it was also freeing.
Do you regret not going home with your mom when you had the chance?
Yes and no. I always wanted to get to know my Mom, but I was very sick when we saw each other at Josh's wedding and she asked me to move to Saskatchewan. So no. I would have ruined her house, disrupted her life and probably stolen from her. She would've ended up hating me, I think. But I always yearned for her, [during] my years wandering around. When we connected at Harvest House, she came into my life when I was ready to change. I don't think it could've happened any other way.
How has your family reacted to the success of your book?
Most of my family love the book. They were impressed that I spoke about our really difficult history in such a respectful way and wasn't accusatory or tried to malign anyone's reputation. There are only two people I know of who were not happy: my aunt and brother Jerry. My aunt because she thought I was unfair with my Grandpa Cyril's portrayal and Jerry because we have a complex history and he still sees me the way I was back then. I am his little brother, who he saved, and I put him through the ringer for years. I am very sorry and love my brother very much, but it will be some time before we'll speak. We go through these periods where we are mad at one another, this is just one of those times. But I think of him every day and miss him beyond words. The way I like to talk about it is we are like the Native Gallagher brothers — from the band Oasis — and we just are at odds right now.
Homelessness is often a result of addiction (as well as mental health issues). What concrete steps can we as a community take to address addiction?
I think we, as a society, need to decriminalize all drugs and then treat addiction like it's a health issue rather than a criminal issue. I mean, do we put people in jail who consume sugar and become diabetics? Addition is the same kind of thing. A person ingests a certain narcotic and they develop a physical dependency. Why not treat addition this way? Put people in rehab rather than jails.
Was it a challenge to write this book, due to having to rethink/relive everything you went through?
Yes, it was hard to write through my past and make sense of it. But it was also freeing. There's something magical that happens when you share everything you've been ashamed to talk about. You let it go and it loses power over you. You also see that others, too, have similar experiences and you build a fellowship with them. For all the pain I went through, in the end it was worth it because now I am not alone in my journey, neither are those that have read.
Was there one thing that motivated you to turn your life around or was it a combination of being through intensive rehab once, then meeting the special lady from your past. Maybe were you getting really tired of the old ways as you aged?
I guess the thing that motivated me to turn my life around the most was knowing I was going to die. So a clear fear of death gave me a new perspective on life. I realized if I didn't change, my loved ones would have to bury me. I couldn't do that to my grandma and brothers. I've heard others in rehab describe a similar fear of death as a motivating force for change.
Did you read any other memoirs for ideas/inspiration before you wrote your own? If so, do you have a favourite memoir you'd recommend?
I did read one memoir actually, Amanda Lindhout's A House in the Sky. I read it while I was on vacation in Cuba. It blew me away. I didn't take any ideas from her, no writing tips, but I did take away a sense of bravery. I wanted to be as brave as Amanda in her recounting the events and not pulling any punches. Only totally putting it all out there like she did would connect. I knew that after reading her book. So that's what I did.
I think we, as a society, need to decriminalize all drugs and then treat addiction like it's a health issue rather than a criminal issue.
Thanks for your courage, and your writings, especially this memoir. Do you have suggestions on how Canada can achieve real reconciliation? It is clear that the Métis peoples have not been properly considered. Awareness is growing and your book has made a big dint in the collective consciousness. I would love to know your thoughts on what steps can be taken on official and personal levels to move full reconciliation forward.
I am wary of saying I have any answers to reconciliation but I do have two suggestions for everyone. Learn about the land you live on. How did your family and families before come to reside there? Then I would ask you to look at the treaty of the area in which you live — who signed that land to Canada, what First Nation, Métis or Inuit was it. then I would ask that you go and try to connect with the people whose land you are now a guest and talk to them and build a relationship with them.
If you could say one thing to your father now, what would it be?
I would like to fight him, actually. Like Johnny Cash did in that song A Boy Named Sue. It's about a fella whose Dad left him when he was three years old. He spent his whole life looking for his father, then he sees him in a bar and he fights him! They kick the crap out of each other and then he hugs him at the end. So I guess I'd like to punch him out for leaving me and my brothers, then I'd like to give him a hug and let my tears do the talking.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from your past? What's your relationship like with your brothers?
I do keep in touch with a lot of people from my past — Olive the church lady, Uncle Ron, Bryan with the eggs. It's a rough go with my brother Jerry right now, but we'll be close again, I am sure of it. Josh and me get along great and he calls and checks in like the big brother he is. My baby brother Daniel is annoying and he always calls, but I guess I am supposed to be annoyed as the old bro. I love them all in their own way. I just wish we got to see each other more.
Do you have advice for urban/suburban indigenous youth (or adults) who feel disconnected from their culture(s) and would like to reconnect, but don't know where to start?
I would suggest trying to search out some local pow wow and try to make friends there. Pow wows bring out a lot of people and it's fun. Try explaining you're searching for yourself and don't know where to go — the people there are then happy to help. Once you're connected to the community, they will help you access ceremony and elders who might even take you out on the land and show you who your cousins are. It happened with me, it can happen to you.
Did you interview & speak with people from your past while writing your book, or base mostly on personal memories?
Yes, I spoke with people like family, my old probation office, people at Harvest House, I looked at my court record, that kind of thing. From these people and sources I built a picture of the past.
Have you noticed that at least some people have started thinking about reasons why there are homeless and what can be done to help them?
Yes, I have noticed people care and are interested in what is happening to homeless people and what is driving homelessness. I think it is wonderful that people are making the effort. If my book helps people do this, then great, we need more empathetic people on the issue.
I realized if I didn't change, my loved ones would have to bury me.
You faced a lot of threats and loss of trust from your former friends after turning in Mike and Stefan. I'm curious to know: what compelled you to tell the truth to the police? And had you cultivated your own moral compass? How difficult was it to be a young aboriginal male informant to the Peel police (knowing the long-standing history and tension that exists)?
I think it was fear that compelled me to tell the truth to the police about Mike and Stefan. I knew I didn't have much choice as an Indigenous male with no permanent address or money to defend myself with. The system doesn't really work well for us. And I didn't believe in hurting people. Selling drugs and stealing is one thing, but killing people is another altogether. I don't believe in hurting people like that. The combination of both compelled me to act.
After finishing your book, I started reading about Métis. Are you a French Métis or Anglo Métis? And do you speak Michif?
I am actually Cree-Métis-Algonquin-Scottish. I have Anglo "halfbreed" and Michif-French blood. I have Algonquin from Timiskaming, and Scottish from Cape Breton. Basically, I have the whole history of Canada within my veins, all the way back to the first settler Helen Desporte, born in Quebec sometime in the 16th century. It goes way beyond that, too, when you start to look at all the First Nations strands of my family.
Well, that's my hour folks. I am glad to have talked with you all. I am super pumped you read my book and were kind enough to make time for me. If you are interested in following me I'm on FB @thistlejesse or over on Twitter @michifman.
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