When I saw Jesse Thistle interviewed on CTV’s The Social and heard his remarkable story, I just knew I had to read his memoir, From The Ashes, My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way. It’s an honest, horrific recounting of his journey from being a homeless drug addict living on the streets of various cities for many years and serving time in prison multiple times, then rebuilding his life to become an Assistant Professor at York University in Toronto. Stories like this always inspire me and give me hope for others in his situation.
Jesse Thistle’s physical and spiritual journey began when he was born to a teenage Cree mother in Saskatchewan and a young alcoholic, drug-addicted white father. Their brief marriage was turbulent from the beginning but did result in three sons, Josh, Jerry and Jesse. By the time the youngest, Jesse was three years old, his mother had abandoned them and they were living in a fetid, filthy apartment with their useless father who couldn’t feed them and often left them alone in the apartment at the ages of three, four and five. When a neighbour called authorities, they were temporarily placed in an inhospitable foster home before their paternal grandparents traveled from Brampton, Ontario to pick them up and take them back to Ontario to live with them.
It wasn’t easy for anyone. The grandparents were older and once again faced with raising three young boys but they did their best. The boys’ father, Sonny was a lost cause. The grandfather was a working member of the union of elevator constructors and their grandmother did her best to keep the three boys fed, clothed, disciplined and safe. The boys missed their mother but adjusted to the strict rules of their grandparents’ home. They attended school in Brampton but Jesse, in particular, fell in with a crowd of misbehavers and rebels. All three boys were strong fighters and regularly got into scraps in the schoolyard or neighbourhood.
Before long, Jesse was smoking, doing drugs, stealing and skipping classes. At the age of 14, his grandfather got him a job stocking produce at a local store which helped to temporarily keep him out of trouble and allowed him to earn his own money. When his grandfather refused to let Jesse buy his own car because his grandfather worried about his impulse control, Jesse withdrew all his bank savings and blew the money on alcohol and drugs. He eventually dropped out of school and with an old childhood friend, embarked on a life of crime, drugs and homelessness.
As his addictions and crimes escalated, his health and general well-being deteriorated. Despite life-threatening health scares and injuries resulting from his reckless lifestyle, he managed to stay alive, but barely. His brothers kept in touch and often provided accommodation when he was at his most desperate. His oldest brother, Josh became an RCMP officer and sent Jesse money to attend his wedding in Vancouver where they were briefly reunited with their mother.
Reading From The Ashes reminded me of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that I read a few years ago. What Jesse experienced during his years of addiction and life on the streets was horrific and with each new chapter that I read, I kept hoping this would be the one where he finally reached rock bottom and “saw the light”. But, instead, one horror lead to another and the years went on. During his final stint in prison, he opted to serve his time in a last-resort rehab facility in Ottawa where he slowly and with a great deal of dedication and determination started putting the pieces of his life back together. He continued his studies to complete high school and graduated while incarcerated. His sense of recall is amazing considering he spent so many years in the stupor of drugs and addiction.
After earning his way back into normal society, he reconnected with old friends from his Brampton high school days who were not engaged in crime and addiction. He went to work for his uncle, built new friendships and started a romantic relationship with Lucie, a woman he had known in high school. With her support and encouragement, he earned a university degree and is now working on his Ph.D. Jesse Thistle is now an Assistant Professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. I didn’t mean this to be a spoiler alert as his book From The Ashes is obviously a story of rebirth and reinvention. It’s absolutely fascinating and I could not put it down. Please do yourself a favour and read Jesse Thistle’s story. It’s honest, brutal, articulate, educational and inspiring. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.