He was once a homeless drug addict. Now he’s one of York’s top students

Halfway through the robbery, Jesse Thistle panicked.

Homeless, strung out on crack, and limping on a badly infected foot, he’d held up a corner store in Brampton.

“I thought they were going to chop my foot off,” he said. “I got desperate and robbed a store in order to use the jail system as a safe place to stay with food and shelter and medical care.”

But he couldn’t go through with it. He ran behind the building, dove into a dumpster, and covered himself in trash. The cops never found him.

On July 16 Thistle — now 40 years old — stood behind that same convenience store thinking back on the time he hit rock bottom. It’s been 10 years since he climbed out of that dumpster and started up a mountain.

In June, Thistle was awarded a Governor General’s Silver Medal as one of York University’s top students. It’s just the latest in a long list of accolades he has earned since he got clean.

It hasn’t been an easy climb.

“Even while I walked across the stage to get my award, I still have that doubt,” Thistle said. “Am I good enough and is this really happening to someone like me?”

Thistle is Métis-Cree. He can trace his family’s roots back to the Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan in 1885 — and that’s also where he traces the root of his former demons.

His great-grandmother Marianne Ledoux and others in his family were forced from their homes near Winnipeg in 1870 and left for Saskatchewan.

After Canadian government forces crushed Louis Riel’s rebellion at Batoche, Thistle’s great-grandmother fled as many of her cousins were hunted and hung without trial. In all, three branches of Thistle’s family witnessed the violence of the land grabs, the rebellion and its aftermath; Thistle said they passed that trauma like a contagion to their children, who passed it on to their kids.

His academic work focuses on the legacy of Métis road-allowance communities, narrow swaths of Crown land along the sides of highways and railroads. These informal settlements — made up mostly of tents and crude shacks — existed for almost a century after Thistle’s people were dispossessed of their land.

“They looked native, but they didn’t have the rights of natives. They didn’t have treaty status or reserves or anything. So to be out of the way, they lived on these strips of land,” Thistle said.

Life in these places was marked by poverty, government indifference and — worst of all — invisibility, Thistle said.

As a boy, Thistle said his father struggled with his own demons and disappeared in the 1980s. He hasn’t been seen since, and Thistle suspects that he’s dead. Thistle and his brothers were raised by their grandparents in Brampton, but Thistle said rather than celebrate their heritage, the family continued to hide from it.

Divorced from his culture and riven by resentment towards his parents, Thistle struggled to understand who he was. His young life started to go off the rails.

“It was rough,” he said. “My technique was to deny my heritage all together.”

By the time he was in his 20s, Thistle was on the street and using drugs regularly. As his struggles mounted, his criminal record grew to include a string of petty robberies, charges for resisting arrest and an assault.

“It’s painful to think about now,” he said, flipping through his four-page record. “It was a pretty dark time.”

But in 2006 he got a second chance in that dumpster. Though he escaped the cops that night, he turned himself in two weeks later.

“The judge said ‘Listen, I can see that you’re desperate because of your leg and you have no place to go and you’re afraid for your life. You can get off the drugs, go to treatment, or rot in jail,’ ” Thistle said.

He took the treatment and went to a centre in Ottawa called Harvest House.

At first he stumbled. A few months into the program, he figured he’d kicked his habit and he left.

“It was like my addiction was right there at the end of the driveway doing pushups, waiting for me. It was worse than it had ever been,” he said.

He spent the next two years sleeping in stairwells or outdoors, doing whatever he could to feed his habit. Finally, in 2008, another run-in with the cops put him back in treatment. This time, he started taking classes.

He also started tracing his family history. In a letter to his grandmother, he promised her he’d get clean and go to university. She died two weeks later, and Thistle’s resolve hardened.

“Reconnecting with my heritage healed me in a lot of ways,” Thistle said.

The deeper he dug into his family’s history, the more his life began to improve. He finished his courses in treatment, enrolled at Carleton University, and was soon at the top of his class. He’s stayed there ever since.

“Basically, I was trying to figure out why I became a crackhead. Why did I rob that store? Why are there so many other indigenous people like me who end up in that kind of crisis situation?”

Today he is the national representative on indigenous homelessness, and is writing a formal definition of the issue for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. He’s a Trudeau Scholar and a Vanier Scholar. In September he’ll embark on a PhD. His breakout paper, Archives as Good Medicine, won York’s Desmond Hart history award. While writing it, he travelled back to Saskatchewan to reconnect with his mother and her family.

“It was odd. It was almost like I was playing Indian. I didn’t feel like a Saskatchewan Métis person. That’s difficult for me to admit,” he said.

That, at it’s heart, is the insidious damage of intergenerational trauma, he says. “It’s about losing all relationships with land, with elders, with community, with your self and your identity.”

But finally going home was, for Thistle, a kind of personal redemption.

“It was really intense. It was really spiritual. The very earth of Saskatchewan seemed to remember me,” he said.

“The geography held the stories of my elders.”

Retrieved from The Star, and written by Jesse Winter.

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