From street to scholar: Jesse Thistle creates new definition of Indigenous homelessness

Once homeless and addicted, Jesse Thistle went from living on the streets to becoming Canada's leading scholar on Indigenous homelessness.
Jesse Thistle is a Governor General medalist, a Vanier and Trudeau scholar and is currently pursuing his PhD in history at York University. (Provided)

In Winnipeg to give a keynote address at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness conference, Jesse Thistle was a long way from his former life.

Thistle, once a high school dropout and addict, lived on and off the streets for 10 years.

"I'd get a place, lose it. I'd end up at a shelter, stay in a shelter for a week or two then get another place, use, cash my cheque and end up back on the street," he said.

"That cycle continued for a while."

His turning point came in 2006 when he got into trouble with the law for robbing a store. Dealing with crack addiction and a broken, infected foot, Thistle was just 138 pounds at 6' 2" when he finally realized his own mortality. Then, more loss, forced him to really look in the mirror.
Jesse’s addictions began while he was in his teens. He spent about twelve years on the streets, in rehab, or in jail for petty crime. (Supplied by Jesse Thistle)

"My grandmother got sick, the woman that raised me and she was kind of my world, the only person that mattered to me. She made me promise her that I would get an education and, stop being an idiot basically."

A judge told Thistle he would not make it through another season if he continued to live on the street and he was court ordered to get help and this time something switched inside him.

"I took that opportunity to its full extent."

Functionally illiterate from years on the street, he had to relearn to read and write. Eventually he took his GED and slowly worked his way up to university. Now, a Governor General medalist and Vanier and Trudeau scholar, he is currently pursuing his PhD in history at York University.

Finding his place

He also reconnected with spirituality and his Cree/Métis roots, something he'd lost during childhood.

Thistle and his brothers were taken by child services in 1980 and after spending some time in foster homes, their grandparents stepped in and raised them in Toronto.

"But what that did was it removed me from my Indigenous community which is in northern Saskatchewan," he said. "I grew up without my identity or my parents and I was very angry growing up."

After he got off the streets and into university, Thistle started to question what lead him — and so many like him — to the streets to begin with.

"While I was at school I started to question why there was so many other people like me on Canadian streets. Why are there so many Indigenous people with addiction issues?"
Jesse Thistle on the day he received his Governor General’s medal for his research. (Supplied by Jesse Thistle)

By having conversations and consultations with front line activists, other Indigenous people and elders across the country he came to understand homelessness through an Indigenous lens.

"The way that Canadians understood homelessness by the Canadian definition was about not having a house to live," he said.

"I realize that it was more about a dispossession from something called 'all my relations' which is an Indigenous worldview where everything is interrelated, interconnected."

He said Indigenous homelessness is  a dispossession from that web of relationships through colonial processes such as residential schools, broken treaties and the scrip process for the Métis.

Drawing from personal experience and years of research, Thistle wrote a paper called Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada, for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. It's a non-profit research institute, where Thistle is the national representative for Indigenous homelessness.

He hopes the new definition will lead to crafting new policy to get dollars to Indigenous-led service providers, like Na-Me-Res in Toronto, that focus on cultural and language revitalization.

"It was the community around me and the relationships and the love that people gave me that got me off the streets," he said.

"We need to do that for Indigenous people, we need to empower Indigenous voices and Indigenous knowledge so they can get off the streets themselves and be the people they're supposed to be in society, so they can contribute in a good way."