By Brenna Mackay

Carleton University is hosting an afternoon talk with Jesse Thistle, author of the national bestseller, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, on Jan. 26, 2021, as part of Carleton’s annual Let’s Talk Day speaker series.

This event will explore Thistle’s personal journey through his experiences with trauma, addiction and homelessness.

Jesse Thistle

Jesse Thistle

“You’re going to see how history impacted me,” says Thistle. “The history of colonization and the dispossession of Métis people and the consequent effects.”

His story is intertwined with his interactions with Children and Youth Services, education, health care and criminal justice systems. He explains how these institutions are part of the “colonial apparatus” of Canada and how they failed to support him at critical points in his life.

His book tells the story of an Indigenous family in Canada struggling with the loss of their culture through damaging racist policies such as the ‘60s Scoop and displacement.

“These are expressions of intergenerational trauma that are prevalent in Indigenous families,” he shares.

“That’s why I wrote the book, because it’s what we went through.”

Thistle was born in Prince Albert, Sask. In 1979, he and his two brothers were removed from his family home and moved to Brampton, Ont. to be raised by his paternal grandparents.

During his late teens and 20s, Thistle struggled with addiction, homelessness, and served several brief stints in jail for petty theft, breach and a series of minor offences. After an unsuccessful robbery attempt in 2006, Thistle turned himself into police custody and entered a drug rehabilitation program.

There, he relearned how to take care of himself by taking an etiquette course at Harvest House in Ottawa. When he received his certificate of completion that had “University of Ottawa” written on it, the piece of paper served as a motivation to continue his education.

“When my grandmother was passing away, she made me promise her that I would take my education all the way,” he explains.

“The certificate and her promise galvanized me to want to do my best and honour that promise.”

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

Understanding the Past & Rebuilding the Future

With support from his wife Lucie, in 2012 Thistle enrolled in an undergraduate program at York University.

“I was trying to do my program, really understand myself, and why I was so messed up all those years,” he says “I knew it had something to do with my identity.”

By taking courses on Indigenous history, Thistle was able to dig deeper into the history of his ancestors and make connections to what he had been through.

“It’s just a beautiful fluorescence of understanding myself, my community,” he shares.

In his talk, Thistle will chart his path towards better understanding his past and rebuilding his future.

“With the help of community that loved me back into the circle, I got better,” he explains. “The story is about the power of when community mobilizes, loves someone and gives them a shot to choose better for themselves.”

Thistle hopes that by sharing his story, it will put a face to issues impacting Indigenous people in Canada and spark honest, open conversations about mental health.

“By listening to other stories, you learn, pick up different tools and realize there is a fellowship of people who are willing to talk about this and offer support by sharing their stories and being accessible to the public,” he adds.

A collection of old photos

A Trudeau Scholar

Since focusing on education, Thistle was recognized as a Trudeau Scholar—a prestigious doctoral award administered by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation—a Vanier Scholar, and was awarded a Governor General’s Silver Medal in 2016.

He has won numerous other awards, including the Odessa Award in 2014 and the Dr. James Wu prize in 2015 for his paper, We are children of the river: Toronto’s Lost Métis History, and in 2019 became an Atlohsa Peace Awards Honouree. Hi memoir From the Ashes was the bestselling Canadian book of 2020.

​Today, Thistle works as a professor in the Humanities Department at York University and is working towards completing his PhD this summer. He says that his lived experience has informed his teaching and kindled a desire to support students struggling to understand their cultural identity. He sees it as his job to hold students up, listen and create a safe place for them to explore their cultural confusion.

“It’s a beautiful process to help rebuild kin with them, help them understand what happened and why,” Thistle says. “I can see the lights go on when they start to see the connections because they’re not told these things.”

Ultimately, Thistle credits much of his recovery to the unconditional love and support from his wife, Lucie.

“She is the one who re-plugged me back into society and gave me value, where I learned to trust and contribute,” Thistle shares.

“I think we all need a Lucie in our life to help us.”

This talk is part of Carleton University’s annual Let’s Talk Day speaker series and is co-sponsored by Healthy WorkplaceCarleton Leader, the Office of Student Affairs (Carleton Wellness), the Rideau River Residence Association, the Department of Psychology and the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA).

The Tree of Life

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