by deirdre kelly
photography by mike ford
Before Métis scholar Jesse Thistle (BA ’15) became a PhD student at York University, he lived on the streets, subsisting on crack cocaine and a life of petty crime that landed him in and out of jail. Today, the 41-year-old recovered addict is a different man.
Not only has the Saskatchewan native of Cree heritage managed to lift himself (with a little help from friends, family and well-intentioned faculty members) out of dead-ended destitution, he has risen to the upper echelons of academe where in a relatively short time he has become a respected authority on Indigenous homelessness.
A film about him, to be based on his forthcoming Simon & Schuster book, My Life: a Métis Memoir, is now in the works.
“The ripples of my healing are expanding,” says Thistle, a soft-spoken man whose words are beginning to ring loud and clear across the nation.
“All my years as a crack cocaine addict? I’m now using that for good.”
Those expected to benefit from Thistle’s own experiences are other Indigenous people and by extension the people of Canada. If that seems a lofty ambition, then know that Thistle has already demonstrated that he can deliver.
Last fall, Thistle travelled to a national conference in Winnipeg to present “Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada,” a groundbreaking academic paper proposing a new way of looking at this rapidly growing social problem.
The paper caught the attention of Janet Smylie, a researcher at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital and one of Canada’s first Métis physicians, who in January invited Thistle to become a lead investigator on “Pekiwewin (Coming Home): An Indigenous Guide for Health and Social Service Providers Working with Indigenous People Experiencing Homelessness.”
This new initiative will translate the knowledge contained in Thistle’s “Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada” into concrete, on-the-ground policy and practice guidelines for medical doctors and social service providers across the country who work daily with Indigenous homeless peoples.
According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, a non-partisan research and policy initiative at York University on which Thistle serves as a representative, one in 15 Aboriginal people in Canadian cities are deemed homeless compared to one in 128 for the general population.
Furthermore, Aboriginal homelessness in major urban areas ranges from 20 to 50 per cent of the total homeless population, and as high as 96 per cent in some areas. An already dire situation could possibly get worse, if an overly narrow definition of homelessness is left unchallenged.
“The Canadian definition of homelessness focuses just on a structure of habitation, but homelessness is far more complex than not just having a place to live,” says Thistle in his home office, about a 10-minute drive south of the Keele Campus.
“Indigenous homelessness, from an Indigenous perspective, implies a disconnection from all things: your land, your culture, your identity, your traditions, stories, customs and language,” the scholar continues, drawing upon deep personal experience and years of university-led research to bolster and support his comments.
“It’s a disconnection from the circle of life, which is what all my relations believe in. And now that Indigenous knowledge has Indigenized the entire sector,” preparing the way for significant revisions of related policies at the federal level.
Homelessness is far more complex than not just having a place to live
“We know more has to be done,” acknowledges Sabrina Williams, a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs. But it’s an important first step.
“Jesse Thistle’s work on the definition of Indigenous homelessness in Canada has been amazing,” says Stephen Gaetz, a professor in York’s Faculty of Education and director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Homeless Hub, who recently was appointed president of Raising the Roof, a leading Canadian charity focusing on long-term solutions to homelessness.
“Through a rich and diverse consultation process Jesse developed a definition that is meaningful and powerful, and helps us understand that addressing homelessness – not just Indigenous homelessness but all homelessness – means we have to pay attention to the difference between simply being housed and having a home, and the necessity of really and meaningfully coming to terms with our history of colonialism in Canada and the need to answer the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Inspiring work from a man who is going to be a great historian.”
Members of Canada’s Indigenous community also support the initiative.
“Jesse’s definition of Indigenous homelessness is well thought out and is an accurate depiction in defining the unfortunate realities of the multifaceted Indigenous experience,” says Steve Teekens, executive director of Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence) in Toronto.
“It takes into account the Indigenous holistic world view of the colonial and historical contexts that have contributed to so many Indigenous people finding themselves in a homeless situation.”
Becoming a catalyst for change has not come easily to Thistle, whose previously troubled life is rooted in a dramatic chapter of Canadian history.
A stark ink drawing of an Indigenous warrior located next to the large computer monitor on his neat-as-a-pin desk draws attention to the now decorated scholar’s origins as a descendant of Mistawasis, chief of the powerful Prairie Tribe and lead signatory on Treaty 6, the 1876 document that gave away most of what is today central Saskatchewan and Alberta to the British Crown.
In signing the treaty, Chief Mistawasis had hoped to ensure the long-term survival of his people. But peace was short-lived. Within two generations, intense frustration combined with mistrust of a long-distance government compelled one of the chief’s granddaughters to fight alongside Louis Riel in the North-West Rebellion of 1885.
The Dominion of Canada’s defeat of Indigenous and Métis forces at the Battle of Batoche resulted in Riel being hanged as a traitor and Thistle’s family banished to the fringes of society.
“We became ‘road allowance people,’ forced to live on the narrow strip of land the government had left on either side of the railroad for later expansion,” says Thistle, carefully choosing his words. “We became the ‘forgotten people.’”
That initial displacement negatively impacted several generations of Thistle’s family for close to a century, emerging as the root cause of their various struggles with addiction, the prison system and homelessness.
I was 15 feeling the weight of that oppression, but not knowing what it was
“For me, it’s been a straight trajectory,” says Thistle, whose name comes from a 19th-century Scottish ancestor who migrated to Cape Breton, N.S., during the Highland Clearances, another displaced society. Thistle’s own father was an addict who eventually was murdered and his mother a shadowy figure who relinquished her three sons (Thistle and two older brothers) to the care of grandparents in Toronto. Life didn’t improve.
“I remember when I was 15 feeling the weight of that oppression, but not knowing what it was,” continues Thistle, who has since made intergenerational trauma his area of study.
“I felt resentful, almost hateful. I started to take crack cocaine to take the edge off. I do see a lot of connectivity between my story and those of others with my background.”
That story reads somewhat predictably.
High on drugs and alcohol, Thistle dropped out of school and hit the streets; he stole to support his habit, was caught and incarcerated several times, and given a month of second chances that he blew every time. The years rolled on, following the same sad pattern.
But one day in 2005, while lying in jail and thinking he was about to lose one of his legs to gangrene, Thistle begged God to have mercy on him with the promise that if he could find his way out of the mess that was then his life he would become a better person. Prayer answered.
A prison course on etiquette, offered through the University of Ottawa, helped Thistle get back on his feet. He had to learn all over again how to groom and dress himself, make his bed and set a table.
Thistle passed with high marks, and the resulting certificate now hangs high, occupying a place of respect on the wall of the Downsview bungalow he shares with his wife, Lucie (“my reason for living”), and an ornery calico named Poppy Cat. “It was seeing the word ‘university’ beside my name that gave me hope,” Thistle shares. “I started setting new goals for myself.”
At the age of 33 – “the same year I got sober” – Thistle went back to school, passing his high-school equivalency so remarkably that a teacher urged him to consider pursuing higher learning. He did so, receiving a bachelor’s degree in history at York in 2015, a master’s at Waterloo in 2016 and 13 prestigious academic prizes, including a handful of Governor General’s Awards and a $60,000 Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Scholarship, along the way.
In the fall of 2016, Thistle returned to York to commence his PhD studies. He hopes to be finished by 2022. “I work fast,” he says.
In anticipation, and while studying for his comprehensives, Thistle has for months shuttered himself in his basement office. There, he has surrounded himself with self-penned letters of encouragement along with photographs of his nieces – the newest members of his family he wants to save from inheriting a life of misery. These are talismanic objects meant to fortify and focus him. And keep him clean.
“I shouldn’t be this smart,” Thistle murmurs, sheepishly pointing to all the framed degrees jostling for wall space. They hang next to a plains bison skull crowned with sweet grass and a halo of prized marbled eagle feathers (“the highest honour you can pay someone in my community”), recently given to him as gifts. “I drank mouthwash and smoked crack,” he continues. “I have no idea how I didn’t lose any brain cells.”
But not only has Thistle retained his sanity through all that he has suffered, he has given new hope to those living on the margins of Canadian society.
Even his own mother, lost to him for years, has derived inspiration from his example.
She recently went back to school herself in hopes of benefiting from the healing process that her son has initiated for her and other Indigenous people seeking to break free from a cycle of shame.
“My methodology is rooted in love,” Thistle says. “I never meant to keep my experiences private.”