"This is what happens when you steal people's land"
[WARNING: CONTAINS MATURE CONTENT]
For the majority of his life, Jesse Thistle lived the stereotype that so many people have of Indigenous men in Canada. He was born into a messed up family, with a history of abuse and addiction. He grew up with a chip on his shoulder, angry at the world. And he inevitably turned to drugs and alcohol himself when he was just a teen. It wasn't long before he became heavily addicted to crack cocaine.
I noticed that whenever I was in the jail system, or all these different shelters and places where homeless people haunt, all the homeless people look like me. They're all Indigenous.
Jesse was that guy you saw on the street, begging for enough change to get his next fix. He was that guy you paid tax money to feed in prison. He was also that guy that lived through the latest chapter in Canada's dark history with its Indigenous people. As we prepare to celebrate 150 years as a nation, it's important to understand the shaky foundation Canada was built on, and the land that was stolen. In the years since 1867, an impenetrable trauma has gripped generations of Indigenous families. Against all the odds, Jesse broke the cycle of intergenerational trauma that ripped his family apart. And now, he's one of the most decorated PhD students in Canada.
"ROAD ALLOWANCE PEOPLE"
Jesse was born into a small community of Metis-Cree "road allowance people" in northern Saskatchewan. A road allowance is crown land that the Metis occupied until highways and railways were built. For generations, the Metis lived in poverty, building makeshift communities on road allowances, until they were forced to move on.
ABANDONED AT THREE YEARS OLD
They settled into an apartment in Sudbury. And it wasn't long before his father needed a heroin fix. He went out, left the boys in the apartment, and was later arrested for robbery. He failed to tell the police that his children were all alone in the apartment. The three young boys found themselves completely abandoned and fatherless.
"We'd go from the apartment, when we were hungry, across the street and we would beg for change. When we got enough money together, we'd buy like a hotdog or something, and split it," Jesse remembers.
And I remember being so alone, you know, with my brothers. We made a pact to take care of each other, no matter what because we were all that we had.
After a few weeks of begging on the streets to survive, Jesse and his two brothers were taken into custody by Children's Aid. They spent the next few months in and out of various foster homes until his grandparents found out, and took them in.
"My grandmother would wrap up Christmas presents for my dad and put them under the tree. She'd make way too much food and over-prepare, and like, she was waiting for her son to come home, and he never did. I remember just looking at them wondering where my dad was," Jesse recalls.
DENYING INDIGENOUS HERITAGE
As he grew older, Jesse developed a deep resentment towards his parents. He became envious of other kids at school. It led to constant fighting with his peers who would often mock his indigeneity with racial insults.
I remember looking in the mirror and not seeing an Indigenous person. And I saw a white kid looking back at me. You know, that's how deep my denial was.
"I just started to turn against my brothers whenever they'd try to express themselves because I didn't understand what they were doing. When my brother Josh was trying to do a drum song or when he'd burn smudge, I'd make fun of him, like, 'What is that? What's this herb? What are you doing?'"
By the time Jesse was 15, he was already drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs. It became an escape for him. He felt accepted, and his identity no longer mattered. He remembers one party in particular that resonated with him.
I just remember feeling like a god, like I was superhuman or something. It's like a hundred-thousand roman candles going off in your soul, like you light up the night.
"I was drinking more than everybody that night, and I was doing more drugs than everybody that night, and my friend called me a crazy Indian because I was acting so wild," he said.
Jesse embraced that label. And with his newfound popularity, fuelled by his Crazy Indian persona, Jesse was finally able to put aside all those questions about his Indigenous identity. He had found himself in drugs, or so he thought.
Eventually, his grandparents grew impatient with him and kicked Jesse out of the house. He temporarily stayed with a friend, and that's when he was introduced to crack cocaine. From the moment he took his first toke, Jesse was hooked. "It's like a hundred thousand roman candles going off in your soul, like you light up the night," he said.
It wasn't long before Jesse found himself homeless, and in the throes of addiction. And, even though he spent months trying to fight it off, the psychological calling was too strong to deny.
It's more important to you than everything. So the love of your family, crack's more important than that. You could sell your own kids for that.
"Every time after that, any money that I got, I'm talking like any money, I would buy crack. Nothing mattered. All that mattered was that I wanted to feel like a god," he remembers.
Every single day, for more than ten years, his sole purpose was to satisfy his addiction. He stole from stores, cars, people, and constantly begged for money. Gripped with an undying addiction, and absolutely no money, Jesse was seemingly left with no options.
In a fit of desperation, Jesse robbed a convenience store. And although he didn't get caught, the paranoia of feeling as if he was constantly being followed by the police slowly ate away at him. Eventually, he decided to turn himself in, and was thrown in jail.
While locked up, Jesse reflected on his life. And oddly enough, he thought about education. He wanted to do better for himself, so he started by picking up a few books. "I started to read, at the bottom, teaching myself English and like really learning to read. It was a skill that I had forgotten because I had been marginalized for so long that I just couldn't read properly anymore," he said.
When Jesse's court hearing arrived, the judge sympathized with him. He could see that Jesse desperately needed help. So he agreed to release him on the condition that he would attend rehab. "And I remember that was the worst feeling of all, to know that I was getting released. I knew that I couldn't control myself and I knew that all that I had built up for a month or two I was inside, it would just mean nothing, and it would be gone," Jesse recalls.
The mental doom starts to sink in and you start to realize what's going on with your life, and how you're going to die a struggling addict. And that's your legacy. Like it really hit me that I was getting close to the end.
Jesse skipped out on rehab, ended up back on the streets, and fell right back into a heavy crack addiction. In turn, he started begging and stealing again in order to get his drug fix. Eventually, he was arrested once again, this time for breaking and entering. The judge gave him a final ultimatum - either take rehab seriously, or end up behind bars for an extended period of time. That's when Jesse called Harvest House - a rehab centre known for taking on the toughest addicts. At that moment, he decided to finally take control of his life.
When Jesse got there, reality quickly set in. Rehab was a boot camp. Each day he was forced to follow an extremely disciplined routine. He had to keep his room spotless, shave every morning, wear freshly pressed shirts, wash mountains of dishes, and jog five kilometres everyday.
So in a way, I guess I put my crack addiction aside and replaced it with a greater addiction for education. And education, that thirst for it, there's a hunger for learning that overpowers my addiction.
It kept him busy from sunrise to sundown. But nevertheless, he continued to crave crack. "That psychological addiction was always there. It never quite went away. Everyday, I'd wake up and I'd yearn and I want to use," he remembers.
In the end, Jesse made it through rehab. Along the way, he also managed to get his GED - a program that allows people to earn a high school equivalency education. It was a massive accomplishment for Jesse but it was time to move on. Without a job, and a place to stay, he was faced with going back to living on the street or in random shelters.
This is where Jesse catches another break. Her name is Lucie, a woman he had known since he was a kid. She reconnected with Jesse on Facebook while he was in rehab. They ended up talking every single night for four months. And when it came time for Jesse to leave, she took a chance on him and offered him a place to stay.
"By time I graduated from rehab, Lucie said 'Hey you want to come and stay with me?' Because I was going to go to a shelter again. She's like, 'We can't have that. You're going to end up where you were. I got to intervene here and you got to come to my house and I don't want any arguments.'"
After completing a bridging program at Carleton University, Jesse enrolled at York University for his undergrad. And during his second year, Jesse started studying Indigenous history. In the first few weeks of that course, he was given an assignment, asking him to contextualize his family history within Canadian colonization. And what Jesse learned during his research, changed his life.
We're all suffering from colonial trauma, and this is the end result of colonization. And this is what happens when you steal people's land, and kick them out, and take everything from them, and then send them through screwed up schools. And like, this is what happens to people, right?
"All of my mom's ancestors fought at Batoche, where the rebel Metis fought against Canada in 1885. They sent an army basically to fight against my family, to take our land after Canada was expanding. And so before 1885, my mom's family were very successful traders, were bison hunters, and basically everything was taken from us and we were dispossessed," he learned.
The cycle of trauma that his ancestors endured was passed on from generation to generation. Ultimately, he realized that he was part of that trauma as well. It allowed him to find peace, and truly connect with his Indigenous identity. "I have a clear purview of who I am, of where my family have been, and what they have endured. I came to forgive them because...with understanding comes forgiveness. And with forgiveness of my parents, my resentments kind of went away," he reflected.
LIVING WITH THE DEMONS OF ADDICTION
Jesse now devotes his life to studying and teaching intergenerational trauma. It's given him a sense of purpose that he had always been missing. He's currently a PhD student studying the lives of Metis people on road allowances. In addition, he's one of the most decorated academics in Canada, receiving more than a dozen awards for his work. And he's helping others too.
There is a part of me that is still begging for change at the bus stop, or in rehab withdrawing, or in solitary confinement...it's almost like I've left fragments of my soul in all these different places.
"I never set out to heal other people, or even my own family. I was just trying to heal myself and stay sober. But from that real, rooted honesty, it's kind of branched out and become something bigger than what I ever imagined it could be," he said. But even after so much success, Jesse still lives with the demons of addiction. For him, that yearning to use crack never really goes away.
"I still fight it daily. I still I'm still cautious of who I'm around. It'll always be that way 'till the rest of my days. I always have to keep an eye on that. And I accept that."