The Next Chapter

Jesse Thistle's book about overcoming homelessness, addiction and trauma aims to give hope to others

The Indigenous author and academic speaks with The Next Chapter about the painful process of writing a personal memoir.
Jesse Thistle is an author and academic of Métis-Cree heritage. (CBC )

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 homeless. Using poetry and nonfiction storytelling, Thistle shares his experiences in the memoir, From the Ashes.

Thistle spoke with Shelagh Rogers about the painful, yet cathartic, process of writing the book.

Internalized hate

"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 so we never heard the end of it.

"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 and 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 just think he was wrapped up in his addictions and just made a bunch of poor life choices that destroyed our family.

"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 and I jumped out the window trying to commit suicide when I was just a kid. I was like four or five years old. So 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.

"So one night I was out partying and 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. So they kicked me out. I lost my job like a week later.

"I had to leave Brampton because I had nowhere to go and 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 and 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 kind of white-knuckling it my first year.

"By the time second year came around, I knew I have to dig deeper. So 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 really 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.