Homeless for a decade, Waterloo grad Jesse Thistle wins Trudeau scholarship

Jesse Thistle, a master's graduate from the University of Waterloo, was named this summer as a Trudeau scholar. It's a huge honour for Thistle, who was previously homeless, and struggled with addiction for more than a decade.

'Once I won the Trudeau, I went, Oh, my life is going to change now'

University of Waterloo graduate and Trudeau Scholar, Jesse Thistle has come a long way from living homeless in the GTA. (University of Waterloo)

Jesse Thistle, a master's history graduate from the University of Waterloo, was named this summer as a Trudeau scholar, one of the most prestigious academic awards in Canada. It was a huge honour for Thistle, who had previously been homeless and struggled with addiction for more than a decade.

The doctoral scholarships are awarded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Recipients get $60,000 a year for their studies, as well as help from mentors and opportunities to collaborate with other mentors, fellows and scholars. 15 scholarships were awarded for 2016 out of 208 applications.

"Once I won the Trudeau, I went, "Oh, my life is going to change now,'" said Thistle.

He's already come a long way.

I just knew I had Native in me, and I didn't know what that meant.- Jesse Thistle

A lost heritage

Thistle was born in the Park Valley Road Allowance Métis community in Saskatchewan. After the Red River Rebellion, Metis people ended up squatting on road allowance land set aside by the Crown to build highways, because they had no where else to go.

Thistle's father and mother separated whe he was three. Thistle's father took him and his brothers, Josh and Jared, to Toronto.

But life didn't improve. Thistle's father was struggling with addictions of his own, and his sons were taken away. The three boys ended up with their grandparents.

"They raised me all the way up until I was 17, but we never really talked about, or I never really understood my culture at all," said Thistle. "I just knew I had Native in me, and I didn't know what that meant."

Thistle said his confusion led to resentment and self-medication, and his grandparents kicked him out.

"I continued down that road until I became homeless," he said. "I was around 21 when that first started."

Success and second chances: Jesse Thistle

8 years ago
Duration 3:08
He was homeless... in and out of jail, and addicted to drugs. But these days - perseverance is paying off for Jesse Thistle. He's celebrating his graduation from York University. Nil Koksal introduces us.

Finding his path

Thistle was on and off the streets for the next decade, but it wasn't until he fell off a roof in 2005 that he got his first chance at changing his life.

Thistle shattered his foot in the fall and it became infected.

"To find a safe place to stay so I wouldn't lose my leg, and so I could have medication, I robbed a store," he said. "I ended up in jail looking at some serious time."

The judge in his case recognized Thistle's anger, and offered him an opportunity to receive treatment.

Thistle remembers him saying, "At best you're just a desperate drug addict with nowhere to go and you're afraid for your life. So I'm going to offer you an opportunity."

"I knew it was a crux in the road," said Thistle, who went to treatment.  "But I continued to relapse."
Thistle began researching his Métis/Cree roots to make sense of his family history. (Supplied)

A home to heal

Around two years passed, and Thistle found himself in Ottawa, and again in serious trouble. The opportunity to fix his life came again, in the form of a rehab centre called Harvest House.

"I finally got it right in June 2008," he recalls.

From Harvest House, Thistle went to Carleton University and took bridging courses to complete his education.

In the meantime, his grandmother was battling leukemia in Brampton, and Thistle saw her again after years of lost contact. Her message to him is something that has stuck with him to this day.

"She asked me why I was acting like an idiot.  She said, 'I know you have it in you to change your life and do something,'" he said. "'Why don't you go to university? You've got to finish and you've got to do your best.'"

Thistle agreed.  Two weeks later his grandmother passed away.

"From that has come everything," he said.

Learning about himself

Thistle went on to complete a bachelor's degree at Carleton, and then to his master's at the University of Waterloo. In the fall he will start his PhD at York University in Toronto.

"I found my identity as an Indigenous person at university. That has anchored me, given me purpose. I know who I am and I know where I fit into the narrative of this country," said Thistle.

Thistle's studies have focused on trauma and memory within the Métis and Cree people of Western Canada. In other words, his own story.

"I know who my family are and I'm proud of that," he said.

His history compelled him to study, and it is something he hopes that other Indigenous youth can do for themselves.

"A lot of them are like me. They've been dislocated from their kinship networks, their communities, their nations, their people. When you're taken from your family like that, you lose your identity as an Indigenous person," he said.

I know who I am and I know where I fit into the narrative of this country.- Jesse Thistle

"I want to help other people who are suffering from intergenerational trauma like I am, [to explain] why all the chaos that they see around them happens."

With the mentorship, support, and credibility that come with a Trudeau scholarship — not to mention $60,000 a year in funding for his research — Thistle is looking to keep the promise to his grandmother.

"As a professor I want to teach history, and I want to write books to reach broader audiences, to reframe the way we look at ourselves as Canadians," he said.

"Keeping the promise to my grandmother, that safeguards me. I'm proud of myself," he said. "I'm proud I kept my word."