Formerly homeless Métis scholar rewrites the definition of Indigenous homelessness

Jesse Thistle is not your typical academic. He's gone from being homeless himself to writing a new definition of "Indigenous homelessness."

Jesse Thistle says Indigenous homelessness isn't just about lacking a home, but about disconnection

Jesse Thistle is the author of Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. (University of Waterloo)

Jesse Thistle is not your typical academic.

He's gone from being homeless himself to writing a new definition of "Indigenous homelessness."

As a national conference in Winnipeg focuses on the issue of Indigenous homelessness, Thistle — with the help and guidance of Indigenous people and elders across the country — has produced a document called Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada.

Created for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness — a non-profit research institute — it provides a new way of looking at, and understanding, Indigenous homelessness.

"The Canadian definition of homelessness is 'lacking a house or structure of habitation,'" said Thistle.

"Indigenous homelessness, from an Indigenous perspective, is about the disconnection from things like spirituality, the family, land, to each other, to cosmology, to Creator. That's the disconnection from 'all my relations,'" he said, referring to the Indigenous perspective on interconnectivity.

Thistle — a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar, and a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto — comes from a very different background from most academics. He has tales of skipping rent, sleeping on friends' couches and doing stints in jail, just to survive on the streets.

He has experienced various aspects of homelessness, including three years of what he describes as "absolute homelessness" and seven years of living in precarious housing situations — like shelters and couch surfing.

Thistle's new definition on Indigenous homelessness was released Thursday, just a day after Statistics Canada released its latest census data. The 2016 census data shows that there was a 30.8 per cent increase in the First Nations population between 2006 and 2016 in total, with only 44.2 per cent living on reserve.

According to Thistle's report, one in 15 Indigenous people in urban centres experiences homelessness, compared to only one in 128 for the general population.

In Toronto, Indigenous people account for 15 per cent of the city's homeless population, although Indigenous people only account for .05 per cent of the city's total population, Thistle's report says, quoting data from Statistics Canada.

Displacement is key to definition

"It's just an injustice, to identify a very complex problem that's going on in First Nations, ​Métis and Inuit peoples into the Canadian definition. It just didn't articulate what I went through myself and what people in my family have gone through," said Thistle, whose family comes from a Saskatchewan Mé​tis community.

One of the keys to the Indigenous homelessness definition is the displacement and removal of children from families and communities that has occurred throughout Canadian history — through residential schools, the Sixties Scoop and today's child-welfare system.

"It's not just that they lose their house, they were probably taken away from their families and children. They become culturally and spiritually homeless when they're young, and that persists through their life," said Thistle.

"There's a lot of people in my family who have experienced homelessness based on our history and trauma as ​Métis, Cree people."

He's hoping he can use his family's history and his own personal experience to create change for Indigenous people experiencing displacement and homelessness.

"I'm just taking knowledge that's in the community and empowering it, and collectivizing that voice so that we can leverage resources and get it into Indigenous service providers' hands," said Thistle.

"Personally, I'm just trying to help that person that I was. I was homeless. I made a promise to my grandmother, too, that I would help in any way that I could with what happened to me."

Indigenous women experiencing homelessness

This week, homelessness advocates from around the country gathered in Winnipeg to discuss solutions to the problem, with a specific focus on Indigenous homelessness.

Kaummajuk Holly Jarrett, from Labrador, is one of the advocates who was invited to share her own experiences with homelessness at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness.

Her first experience that she can remember was at seven years old, just after her parents split up. She recalls going to sit on the steps of a housing agency with her mother after hearing about a new housing development opening up. Her mother stayed on those steps until the agency agreed to give them a house to stay in.

When it comes to homelessness in Canada, '[Indigenous women] are the low man on the totem pole,' says Kaummajuk Holly Jarrett. (Lenard Monkman)
When she was 23, she moved to Michigan and thought that she had found an apartment.

"I ended up in an actual homeless shelter in Michigan for four months. That was the most extreme, violent, traumatic experience with homelessness that I've had," said Jarrett.

Since then, Jarrett has had multiple experiences where she has personally had to deal with homelessness, primarily in urban centres in Canada.

The Inuk woman is the daughter of a residential school survivor, and was introduced to poverty in her childhood.

"I didn't know that it was a struggle. I thought that was life. Now that I know better, I know that it was the intergenerational effects of poverty and residential school abuse," said Jarrett.

Jarrett said that when it comes to homelessness, there is a difference between living on- and off-reserve.

"There is no community in urban centres," she said.

"You have to go and seek it. Sometimes if you aren't part of the cliques here, then you just don't get any of the supports. When you go home, sometimes it is corrupt, but there's a duty to respect at home," Jarrett said.

"If I go on my experience, [Indigenous women] are the low man on the totem pole, and right above that is Indigenous men."

Addressing homelessness in First Nations communities will not only take money, she said. She also said it's important to listen to those who have experience with homelessness to offer.

"Put people who have been homeless in situations, and at tables, where they can give their expertise in a safe manner, without people being afraid of us because we're angry."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1