As Jesse Thistle tells it, everything happened kind of by accident.
Three years ago, Thistle was sitting at his desk in a cramped Toronto basement apartment, working on a master’s thesis on his family’s connection to Métis history.
In the space of a decade he’d lifted himself from a life of homelessness, wrestled his addictions into submission and started connecting with his Métis-Cree heritage.
Thistle, now , had spent so much time on the streets and on drugs that he had to learn how to read all over again. Now he was a Trudeau scholar and a Vanier Scholar. He won a Governor General’s silver medal. He was thinking seriously about a quiet career in academia. His life was stable. He had — it seemed — finally made it.
Then, in 2016, The Star published a profile of him that changed the trajectory of his entire life.
After that first story, “everything kinda blew up,” he said during a phone interview earlier this summer.
Broadcasters started calling for interviews. Publishers came knocking. He optioned his life rights to movie producers.
Suddenly Thistle was getting requests for speaking engagements across the country. Everyone wanted to know how a once-homeless man with a crippling drug addiction had become one of York University’s most decorated students.
Alongside his academic work, he wrote the formal definition of Indigenous homelessness for the non-profit research organization called the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. It revolutionized the way governments and aid agencies think about the kinds of struggles Thistle experienced for years.
“My life is changing in leaps and bounds,” he said in an phone interview from his home in Hamilton, Ont. “It kinda feels like I’m travelling at light speed. It’s kind of scary, actually.”
On Tuesday, his memoir From the Ashes was released by Simon & Schuster. It traces, in spare and often brutal prose, how Thistle’s nuclear family in Saskatchewan fell apart when he was a toddler. His father, struggling with his own addictions, disappeared when Thistle was a young child and has never been found. Thistle and his brothers were taken into protective custody and eventually placed with their grandparents in Brampton, Ont.
His father’s abandonment began a cycle of trauma that taught Thistle to shun and hide his Indigenous heritage, and led directly to homelessness and a long battle with nearly every street drug available.
In his humble, understated way, Thistle says the book is simply a collection of his writings about the fourth step in his addiction-recovery program — the one where people have to conduct a “fearless moral inventory.”
“When I was coming out of rehab, they got me to write it all down so I could make sense of what happened to me,” he says. “I just collected them and put them on a blog.”
When Simon & Schuster approached him in 2017 about a potential book deal, he sent them the blog posts and almost immediately they decided to publish them.
Writing a “fearless moral inventory” is one thing. Wrapping it in a dust jacket and sharing it with the world is something else completely.
The movie producers, Thistle says, “are going to portray me however they choose to portray me. The memoir is my chance to kind of explain to people my side of things.”
While the skeleton of the book had been written long before publishers were interested, Thistle said fleshing it out was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done.
“It was a real work of self-discovery, the process of writing these stories.”
In the book, Thistle details scenes of nearly unimaginable pain with an accessible bluntness that makes them all the more devastating. He said some of the worst moments had to be teased out of his brain by a therapist, because his mind had all but erased them.
“It was almost like wounds that had bandages healed into them, and I had to pull them open again for them to heal properly,” he said.
One of the most distressing is a moment in high school. While Thistle equated his Indigenous identity with loss and abandonment, his brothers Josh and Jerry had started to embrace it more openly.
“I was ashamed,” Thistle said. “I was trying to forget myself and build a new identity by telling everyone I was Italian.”
Josh, however, had started telling people he was Indigenous. At one point, he was chosen for a trip to the Netherlands where he sang and played a traditional drum song. “Everyone was really proud of him,” Thistle said, “and I was so jealous.”
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One afternoon, while Thistle was in the smoking pit at his high school, Josh burst through the door, crying and shouting, and collapsed on the ground saying he’d had a vision of Thistle in trouble. Teachers gathered around trying to help, but Thistle shrugged and turned away.
“That day at the school, Josh was clearly in distress. He needed me as a brother but I was trying to distance myself from all of that so I turned my back on him,” Thistle said. “It haunts me to this day that I did that.”
But amid the darkness, Thistle weaves a narrative punctuated with joy and comedy and ultimately redemption. The scenes of his life as a toddler in a Métis community before his family fell apart are profoundly beautiful.
“It’s a testament to the resiliency of Indigenous people,” he said. “I’m not unique. I know that there are people who have been through way worse than me. Mine is just one small, little story in the narrative of Canada.”
That narrative is something Thistle plans to continue highlighting in his work. A major facet of Indigenous homelessness is the idea of land dispossession and the ways in which generations of Indigenous people were pushed out of their homes and sequestered on reserves.
In 1997, after he was kicked out his grandparents home in Brampton because of his drug use, Thistle and a friend travelled to Vancouver and briefly joined the disproportionately high number of Indigenous people there who have nowhere to live.
When they arrived, the pair lived in a car for weeks. Thistle was shocked and terrified by the scale of homelessness and addiction he saw in the Downtown Eastside all those years ago.
Now, looking back, Thistle believes the reason there are so many Indigenous people on the streets can be attributed to the fact that Vancouver — indeed most of B.C. itself — sits on unceded land that is not covered by treaties.
“It’s basically stolen land,” Thistle said.
As for the high rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women in B.C. today, Thistle said there is a direct link between the influx of mostly male settlers who arrived from San Francisco in the late 1800s.
“A homosocial society arose with very few white women. The degradation of Indigenous women happened very quickly, where they were seen in the zeitgeist of the time as essentially disposable.”
Now that the book is out, Thistle will turn his attention to two important projects. Recently hired as an assistant professor at York University, he’s working on his PhD, and plans to continue to document the impact of ongoing colonialism on Indigenous people, particularly those who still have no homes.
The second — and for him more profound — is the chance to start a family with his wife Lucie.
“The next thing is to have a baby and end the cycle of trauma in my family,” Thistle said.
“I understand it now. I think I’ve been putting off being a father because I was afraid of becoming my dad, of running away or disappearing on my child. But I know that won’t happen now.”
Jesse Winter is an investigative reporter based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @jwints