Author Jesse Thistle’s life has been difficult, but he wants to use it to show problems that go beyond himself. His book From The Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless and Finding My Way, recounts his life, from a difficult childhood and abuse, through drug addiction and homelessness, into the present, where he is a Trudeau Scholar, researcher, Assistant Professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto and the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. He spoke via Zoom at the Yorkton Public Library’s recent Book Talk.
The book recounts Thistle’s life and experience, but he said it’s about more than that.
“I really wanted it to be a testimonial to what institutions do to Indigenous people. Institutions like [Children’s Aid Society], courts, the justice systems, our homeless sector. All of these, and more, I came in contact with. I didn’t really come out of it unscathed. They didn’t really work the same for me as they did the rest of the population, so I wanted to show that. To show that I needed to be frank and honest, not pull punches and show what it’s like,” said Thistle.
The goal is not only to recount his life, but to educate people on what different institutions can do to people like him, people who are from an Indigenous background.
“They will say “it’s the different institutions and apparati of colonialism that have suppressed our Indigenous people” but they don’t actually give you anything specific. I did the exact opposite. I showed you specific moments of racism, of state care not working, of the courts suspecting me as a murder suspect when I did the right thing as a young Native man, and how they just don’t work for us, they don’t work in the same way. On top of that, I showed how colonialism, and the various arms of it, feel. What it feels like to go through CAS as a kid who is scooped from their home, and end up in a different city where there’s no explanation as to why we are where we are, why my mom and dad aren’t around. I tried to show that, I think it’s more impactful than me trying to lecture on the issue of colonialism and different things that impact us. I’m just going to show you my journey.”
An example of this is what happened after he was scooped from his dad’s care. He ended up being raised by his white grandparents, instead of by his Métis mother in Saskatoon. While the book doesn’t explain this, he wants the reader to wonder why they didn’t send him to his mother.
“They made the decision that I would be safer far off in a different province, far from my family, rather than living with my mom.”
A major part of the book deals with identity, specifically Thistle’s identity as a Métis man from the road allowance communities near Prince Albert. He said it took him until his mid-30s to understand and become proud of his history, but that it was that which helped him overcome his addictions and helped him build his career.
“We’re actually Michif resistance fighters who stood up what they believed in, and fought right to the end. I’m damn proud of that, I’m damn proud of families who stood up for what they believed in and fought for their land and territory… Me connecting with my heritage was actually going back and really unearthing what happened to my ancestors as well as deconstructing the myths that are in Canadian public history about the Métis and the Cree. Through that process I became very proud of who I am,” Thistle said.
“All of the imagery that’s given to us about Indigeneity or Indigenous men or women is all negative. They’re all stereotypical caricatures of what an Indigenous person is. Either we’re drunk or criminal, we’re thieves, all of these things. Because I didn’t have any positive person there to show me what being Indigenous was, I absorbed all of these negative stereotypes that were around me. I picked them up, almost like pieces, and built myself an identity that was almost framed around a toxic warrior identity. It was like a bricolage, a Frankenstein identity… It’s no wonder I ended up living out all of these stereotypes in real life, because I had internalized them growing up. So, to get better, I had to undo those stereotypes, and replace them with what I know now about Indigeneity, that I learned through school and research. It was really central to getting better, living a sober life, and contributing in a good way.”
A memoir that tracks both Thistle’s childhood and his life through addictions, he had to research himself, looking through old records and talking to family to help reconstruct his life.
“I had to go back and look at my full RCMP record, court records, I had to go back and talk to my probation officer. I didn’t like the person that I saw, I’ll tell you that. So much time and distance had passed from my old life… A lot of it was different from how I remembered it, especially around the police records, they had written things in a way that was different from how I remembered it, and when I went around and talked to other people about that, I was informed that police write down what gets a conviction, they don’t write down the truth. They’re going to write down what gets an arrest, so that’s why some of my memories differed. It was a different season in my life I guess, I don’t see myself as that person anymore. A lot of coming to terms with who I actually was, and where I am now. It gave me a really good perspective on why I’m sober, why I’m in a loving relationship with my wife, so in that way it gave me clarity.”
But addictions aren’t kind to memory, and Thistle said there were gaps, especially surrounding the robbery which landed him in prison.
“There was like a year or two missing from my memory, just because of the nature of addiction. I wish I could remember more, but I wrote down what I could.”
Now his job is a historian, and he’s researching Métis history. He admits that while he’s supposed to be objective as a historian, he said that he threw out objectivity and focused on his family history, who his people are and how they fit into the narrative of Canada.
“With that real subjective type of research came a closeness and a real fire or drive to study more. I’m not reading about some historical figure, I’m reading about my kokum or mooshum, or my three-times great-grandfather signing a treaty, or the battle of Batoche and all my ancestors who fought there. It added a colour and a life to the history that actually gave me the edge over everyone else. They had that objectivity but they didn’t have that passion, where for me it’s all driven by that passion.”
One of the things Thistle discovered was that he spoke Michif as a small child, but is unable to anymore, and he said it’s not just a loss for him personally.
“It’s excruciating because there aren’t too many Michif speakers anymore. It was a very special time period and people in Canada’s history, and there is a part of me that hasn’t grieved that, and part of me will never fully grieve, because we were just choked out, and made extinct by the state. That was a conscious thing that they did to us. To be the last of your people, in a way, to be able to hold that cultural knowledge and then it’s gone, it’s fleeting, I don’t even have words to describe that. It would be like the last Canadian playing the last game of hockey and then forgetting how to play hockey. How do you put that into words? It’s just so sad and pitiful. What makes it even sadder is that in our area of Saskatchewan around P.A., we had our own specific dialect, and that’s virtually gone now. There are other Michif speakers, from around Yorkton there used to be a community around Winnipeg, but they’re not our Michif. To know that I spoke that breaks my heart.”
There have been mixed reactions from Thistle’s family. His mother points to it when she comes across the book in a store, proudly telling people it was written by her son. His brother Josh has used it to help as he went through therapy, by showing his therapist to help with issues he hasn’t been able to vocalize, to help him heal from his own PTSD and addictions.
“To help contribute to my brother’s health like that, it’s the greatest gift I could have.”
His 13 year-old niece has told him that he’s inspired her to write stories herself.
“What’s kind of remarkable is that she believes she can be a writer because I’m a writer. As you know from my story, I couldn’t really read properly until I was in my 30’s, and I definitely wasn’t proud of being Indigenous at her age. For her to have both of those things, it made the whole process worth it.”
On the other hand, his brother Jerry, who Thistle said might be the hero of the book, doesn’t like that it’s out in the world and that his family history is there for people to see.
“Really, I think it’s sibling rivalry… But that happens with families, right? Whenever you write a memoir, if you’re going to write one, know that it’s like throwing a bomb into your family living room on Christmas.”
Now that the book is out there, Thistle admits that it’s strange to have it out in the world, and he hopes that people who read the book can understand what he wanted to say.
“That’s a weird feeling, to trust people, to go through the emotions of your life. But it’s out there now, and I look at it like a piece of art, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I’m not saying my work is like the Mona Lisa, but it’s like the Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci couldn’t come back and fix it, everybody would be ‘hey, don’t fix that, this is ours now!’ That’s kind of what the story is taking on. I’m trusting you to digest the story and how I intended it to land,” said Thistle.
He said that when he wrote the book, he didn’t think anyone would read it, because it is about a guy doing drugs on the streets. But since it has hope, and that it is also about that same guy finding love and trust, and salvation through education, he can understand why people want to read it. He also said that he’s surprised by how it has changed his life, and more importantly, dramatically changed how people perceive him.
“I think it’s strange, the same people who buy my book, some of them are the same people I would try to bum change off of in Ottawa, and they’d walk over top of me. Now they’re all crowding to hear my story. Literally, I had politicians I knew then step over me, and these are the same politicians that I go keynote speeches to and educate about Indigenous homelessness. If that’s not the Creator at work, I don’t know what is. Totally inverted the power there.”
Thistle is writing his next book now, writing about his great uncle Ron, who was a professional bank robber in Toronto in the 1970’s. He said that his life story is way more adventurous, but it’ll be a fictionalized version of it.
“He was involved with some pretty heavy dudes and I don’t want to get in trouble with those guys!”
They’re also currently in the process of making a miniseries based on From the Ashes, though he notes that they’re very early so it will be a long way away from filming.