Jesse Thistle overcame homelessness, addiction and trauma — and wrote a book to inspire others to do the same
This interview originally aired on Sept. 7, 2019.
Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree scholar from Saskatchewan has earned many honours for his work in academia, including the 2016 Governor General's Silver Medal. He specializes in Indigenous homelessness, a topic he understands all too well.
Abandoned by his parents and raised by his difficult grandparents, Thistle struggled with addiction as an adult and spent 10 years without stable housing and was often homeless. Thistle combines memoir with poetry to share his experiences in the memoir From the Ashes.
Thistle spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing From the Ashes in September 2019.
"I grew up in Brampton, Ont., in the 1980s. Back then it was mostly white. My brother Josh foolishly told them that we lived in a teepee once in Saskatoon. And we never heard the end of it.
It made my life easier to start telling people I was Italian. I denied my heritage that way. I internalized shame from being Indigenous.
"It made my life easier to just start telling people I was Italian. I denied my heritage that way. I internalized shame from being Indigenous. I was already starting to absorb all the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people that I would see in the media."
Painful early years
"I lived with my dad when I was three years old. We used to have to jump out the window at night to avoid the landlord. My father was going from place to place and dealing with his life as an addict. 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. I don't think he was a bad man. I think he was wrapped up in his addictions and made a bunch of poor life choices that destroyed our family.
That theme of suicide runs through the whole book. It's something that has been there since I was a child.
"There's a poem I wrote at the beginning of the book that ends with me leaving the bag on my bed. When I get to my grandparents' house, I jumped out the window trying to commit suicide when I was just a kid. I was four or five years old. That's what that poem is about. That theme of suicide runs through the whole book. It's something that has been there since I was a child."
Falling into addiction
"My grandfather had warned me my whole life not to use drugs because he, in his mind, lost his son because he experimented with drugs. I think he was traumatized by what happened and was resentful of my father. He equated that with drugs, so he warned me if I ever did drugs that he would disown me.
My grandfather had warned me my whole life not to use drugs because he, in his mind, lost his son because he experimented with drugs.
"One night I was out partying. I had a really nice girl that I was in love with. I got seduced and I started using drugs. I remember coming home that night and a bag of coke fell out of my pocket. I did a bunch of other things to tick my grandparents off and that was the final straw. They kicked me out. I lost my job like a week later.
"I had to leave Brampton because I had nowhere to go. I went out to Vancouver and ended up staying with my brother Josh, who is an RCMP officer. But I still continued to be the person that I was and he eventually had to kick me out. I ended up homeless down in New Westminster."
Reconnecting with self and community
"I was able to reconnect to my Métis-Cree heritage through academia, which is the opposite of what academia or education was for Indigenous people. It was previously used to remove Indigeneity with things such as residential schools. I entered university in 2012 and I was white-knuckling it my first year.
I was able to reconnect to my Métis-Cree heritage through academia, which is the opposite of what academia or education was for Indigenous people.
"By the time second year came around, I knew I had to dig deeper. I started taking Indigenous classes. I had this cool assignment where I had to contextualize my life within Canadian colonization. The assignment allowed me to understand and reconnect with my family history. I got a good mark on the paper and that was the beginning of my reconnection with myself, my family and the land."
Jesse Thistle's comments have been edited for length and clarity.
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