Jesse Thistle: From Homelessness to Scholar

Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree man, spent more than a decade on the streets, homeless and in jail. But now, he’s a best- selling author, a Governor General medalist, Vanier and Trudeau scholar, PhD candidate and Assistant Professor at York University.

His memoir, From the Ashes details how his issues with abandonment and addiction led to homelessness, incarceration and his eventual redemption through higher education. It was nominated for Canada Reads and is an international best-seller, inspiring millions of readers.

After a difficult childhood, Thistle spent much of his early adulthood struggling with addiction while living on the streets of Toronto.

"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 in an article with CBC. "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.

"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.

"I want people to understand that you can't just write people off because they've done something wrong. You have to give people a second chance. I'm one of those people,” he told CBC. “I would hope that people understand that becoming homeless and being in the justice system was not a choice of morality. It wasn't because I was just making bad choices. I was traumatized and I was trying my best to survive. I hope people understand that. It's about having a community of people that can love you back into the circle."

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."

Source: CBC News 'From street to scholar: Jesse Thistle creates new definition of Indigenous homelessness'

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