When I was invited to an event featuring Jesse Thistle, a Métis Cree author and assistant professor at Toronto’s York University, I had just a faint idea of who the man was. The event, sponsored by the Temiskaming Native Women’s Support Group, promised to be a story of triumph of a man who managed to move from being homeless, incarcerated and an addict to being a scholar, educator and a prominent advocate for the homeless. He was featured as the keynote speaker for two events in late November, one in Temiskaming Shores and the other in Kirkland Lake.
I am Indigenous, a Cree from Attawapiskat and I was brought up in a traditional lifestyle. I speak my Cree language and I have a good understanding of my tradition and culture. When I heard that Jesse was coming to the North to speak to us about miraculously turning his life around I was at first a little skeptical as I have seen so many so-called Indigenous people claiming all kinds of things over the past 20 years and much of the time it was based on questionable ancestral claims. Many of these proclaimers were acting on the fact that being Indigenous has become rather trendy over the past few decades and some were trying to further their careers, promote their art or gain financial rewards.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jesse was making no claims that he could not back up with good research pointing to his Métis Cree ancestry. He also spoke with honesty and truth about his hard life and the fact that his family in the late 1800s were displaced from their lands in Manitoba and had to flee to Saskatchewan. He talked about his people having to live without any claim to a land base and settled on roadsides and next to railway tracks in tents and shacks known as “Métis road allowance communities”. In the 1980s, his father disappeared and it is believed he was murdered as he was living a hard life and dealing with addictions. Jesse ended up with his grandparents in Brampton, Ontario.
When Jesse became a young man, his life began to spiral out of control and he became addicted to drugs (in particular, crack). That trail put him on the streets and a life of petty crime. Some of the stories he told about these hard times were presented in a very Native way with a humorous tint. He spoke about how he committed a crime to attract the attention of the police and ended up in jail so that he could get medical treatment for an infection in his leg that had festered to the point that his foot had turned black. After a couple of attempts at addiction treatment through the sentencing given by a judge who understood that Jesse needed a break, he ended up in a program where he took advantage of upgrading and getting an education.
Jesse makes no bones about it and points out that his road to recovery and getting a life had a lot to do with meeting good people along his way – in jail, at treatment and in the person of his wife Lucie, who met him when he was being released back into society. With her by his side and helping him to become a good citizen and student, Jesse focused on his education and made huge strides. Today, he is an author of the book From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way; an assistant professor at York University; a Trudeau scholar as well as a Vanier scholar; and a PhD candidate. He was recently named one of Toronto’s most influential people of 2019 by Toronto Life and he is a member of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.
Meegwetch, thanks Jesse for being honest, working hard, standing up and moving ahead in a world that will always be challenging. As someone in recovery I understand how scary the thought of relapse is and I know how important it is to keep doing what we have to do to stay sober. Thanks to his wife Lucie for her love and devotion and all the good people who lifted Jesse up when he most needed it. Most importantly I give thanks to all those who are suffering with addictions, detachment and dysfunction tied to colonial trespasses and to those who are homeless because they are the motivation for Jesse and me to keep going on his trail of discovery and healing.