Canada Reads spotlight: From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle
Given the ongoing developments with COVID-19 and the related travel concerns, Canada Reads was postponed.
This episode is dedicated to Jesse Thistle's From the Ashes. The first-time author is a professor at York University who studies Indigenous homelessness. He tells his own story of being homeless, becoming an addict and struggling with suicidal thoughts before ultimately finding his way in From the Ashes, which he describes as "a quest for love."
The beginning of a broken heart
"When I lived with my dad, when I was three years old, we used to jump out the window at night to avoid the landlord. He was going from place to place and dealing with his life as an addict and so I learned quickly that I couldn't unpack my bag. A lot of what I saw with my dad was traumatic and it led to suicidal thoughts. The [opening] poem ends with me leaving the bag on my bed when I get to my grandparents' house and I jumped out the window trying to commit suicide. I was four or five years old. My grandmother asked and I didn't have the words. I said, 'I don't need it anymore because I want to go to heaven.' Luckily there was grass underneath my window and I was fine. That theme of suicide runs through the whole book. It's something that's been there since I was a child.
"My mom wasn't around and I knew that she was Indian, as we used to say back in the day. I grew to be resentful of her, of what had happened with my mom and my dad. I used to get teased by other kids and they would always ask me questions about where my parents were and why I was darker than them. I grew up in Brampton in the 1980s and back then it was majority white. My brother, Josh, foolishly told them that we lived in a teepee once in Saskatoon and we never saw the end of it. We got war whoops and people would tease us about being Indian. It made my life easier by Grade 5, 6, 7 by telling people I was Italian. I denied my heritage that way.
It was the most traumatic thing that I can remember in my early childhood. Just nobody cared.- Jesse Thistle
"[My grandfather] had warned me my whole life not to use drugs. He had, in his mind, lost his son because he'd experimented with drugs. One night I was out partying... I remember coming home that night and a bag of coke fell out of my pocket. I did a bunch of other things to piss my grandparents off and that was the final straw. They kicked me out and I lost my job. A week later, I had to leave Brampton because I had no place to go and I went to Vancouver and ended up staying with my brother Josh, who is an RCMP officer. But I still continued to be the person I was, using, and he eventually had to kick me out. I ended up homeless in Vancouver and New Westminster. It was the most traumatic thing I can remember in my early adulthood. Just that nobody cared. Nobody cared... I was terrified. That was the beginning of me having a broken heart."
The roots of Indigenous homelessness
"The drivers that put people who are Indigenous into homelessness are different than the general population. There's dispossession of land, there's loss of culture, destruction of domiciles. If you look at how Indigenous people end up homeless, they have all these disconnections from relationships over time through colonial interruption.
"I'd talk to people who had gone through residential school or day school or had been scooped. They would describe their homelessness later in life from the earlier cultural dislocation that happened from being separated from their family at ages like four or five. They describe their homelessness as starting when they were taken from their family unit. I had never heard that before and I got to thinking about my own life because me and my brothers were raised elsewhere without our culture. I realized those people were actually right and why isn't that articulated in the homelessness literature? People are stuck in their boxes and thinking about homelessness as lacking a structure of habitation when really I believe it's about a loss of healthy relationships within our worldview of helping each other in a good way."
Why George Canyon chose From the Ashes
"We are so blessed to live in the greatest country in the world. We all live, most of us, in our three foot bubble. I witnessed it walking here. I witnessed people literally running into each other because their heads are down in their phone, in their three foot bubble, in their own little world.
Back when I was in law enforcement, I wish I would have had this book...- George Canyon
"This book opens your eyes to the immediate stereotype you will have when you see a homeless person, when you see an addict, when you see somebody that doesn't fit into our three foot bubble. You immediately judge them and move on. When you read this, you quickly go, 'Oh my God, that could be my children.' The way Jesse portrays the story is a vital part of that. Back when I was in law enforcement, I wish I would have had this book... because it would've created an immediate different value of empathy for me. Jesse talks to lots of law enforcement agencies about the book and about the experience and it changes things."
Jesse's advice to George
George Canyon (GC): "What advice do you have for me when it comes to making certain I represent your book honestly and transparently?"
Jesse Thistle (JT): "Well, recognizing one that a lot of Métis were and are cowboys. That's a big part of our culture. From the post-World War Two era onwards. All my uncles were great with horses and were raised on the Prairies so it's part of our culture. So the culture that you live and work within is part of our culture as well. Also to know that my ancestors are with you, they are walking with you to tell this story."
- How Jesse Thistle survived addiction, homelessness and incarceration — and became a Canada Reads finalist
GC: "What's the one thing that I should make sure that everybody knows about your book?"
JT: "It's a quest for love. The story is about losing connection and family and it's a quest for love and I eventually find it with my wife, where I learn self-love, to take care of myself, love my wife and then she re-teaches me how to in turn love society."