There’s always that one kid.
It’s usually a guy (though not always), and from the first days of school, they seem intent on mischief, misbehaviour, and mayhem. You remember that kid from school, don’t you? They sat behind you in class — or maybe, way up at the front, where they’d been moved by an exasperated teacher. They were a strange admixture of sullenness, manic comedy, dangerous rage, and confusion. There’s always that one kid, and they seem intent on self-destruction.
Jesse Thistle was that kid. In his memoir, From the Ashes: my story of being Métis, homeless, and finding my way, he recalls what it was like being that kid, and then that man. He tells the story of his life, his chaos and dislocation, his terrible pain, and the pain he caused everyone who cared about him.
From the Ashes is a very hard book to read, or at least it was for me. It was difficult watching this man’s life unfold like a slow-motion train wreck: drugs, dropping out of school, getting ostracized by his family, homelessness, breaking the law, time in jail. In ten years of darkness, Jesse floundered, and circled the drain.
But then, there is light. In a last-ditch attempt to recover, Jesse Thistle saved himself, and his triumph makes this book worth reading all the way through.
From the Ashes is a memoir, told in a chronological fashion, but told in short vignettes. As the author says, “because of my youth and, later, my addictions, I see what happened to me like fragments of light, flickers of a flame, shadows on a wall. And trauma distorts perspective.”
The book opens with a fairly happy memory of Jesse and his brothers Jerry and Josh, spending time with their maternal grandparents. They lived in a cabin on a road allowance — a fairly common practice among Métis Cree who had lost their land after the Riel rebellion in 1885. But in a foreshadowing of what was to come, the peace of that day is shattered when his parents come to pick the boys up early — their mother with a darkening bruise on her face. Next we see that Jesse and his brothers are living in Ontario with their father, who teaches them how to shoplift, and leaves them alone with no food for extended periods while he goes in search of drugs to feed his habit. They finally end up living in Brampton with their father’s parents. There, they are cared for in a somewhat indifferent way, and all the while Jesse’s dislocation grows more acute. At 19, he gets kicked out, and his spiral into addiction, criminal behaviour, and homelessness intensifies. The next decade of his life makes for tough reading.
Finally, he washes up before a judge who offers him a chance at rehab, and, desperate to live, Jesse takes it. He employs every ounce of energy and courage he possesses, and gets his GED, enters a 12-step program, and gets his life back on track. He says, “I replaced my addictions with education”. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the strength of will that must take, when all you’ve known for years is addiction and the street.
Along the way, he finds Lucie – whom he had met as a kid. For the first time in many years, he has a home, and someone to love. She urges him to follow his dreams of higher education, and he eventually achieves some of the highest academic honours this country offers. He presently teaches Indigenous Studies at York University, and advocates for the homeless.
Writing this book began as part of his 12-step program, his ‘moral inventory’, and it must have taken great courage to face some of his darkest moments when he surely would have preferred to forget them. For Jesse Thistle, the book was part of his healing, and his penance.
Since this is a personal memoir, the main character is the author, himself. Jesse Thistle shares all his memories — the good, the bad, and the downright horrendous — in such an honest and vulnerable way that you can’t help but care about him even when he’s doing truly awful things. You can see his trajectory quite clearly, but his redemption is almost more shocking than his downward spiral.
As a reader I could hardly believe that anyone could pull themselves out of that terrible spin. Where did that strength come from that he was able to draw upon? It wasn’t merely desperation, there has to have been something more. I think that’s where the good people he had encountered in his life, even for a short period, had an effect.
Somewhere within him, there was an indestructible kernel of love, put there by his grandparents, his brothers, his friend’s dad, some kind social workers and teachers, and a girl named Lucie, that gave him the strength to live, and to make him feel like he was worth saving. Once he could see a way through, he really began to lean into his indigenous heritage, and reach outside himself.
He said in a lecture he gave in 2019, “Jail saved my life. Rehab got me sober and gave me back my heart. Education helped me figure out why I was out of control and why my indigenous family was so broken”. Intergenerational trauma, Jesse came to understand, can exert a force that is so overwhelming that it can block out the sun, a looming darkness that too many people experience as their only reality.
In From the Ashes, there is the story of Jesse Thistle’s fall, and then his redemption; but the larger story is about intergenerational trauma. I found a clear and simple definition quoted by Toronto mental health clinician Peter Menzies in an article in Native Social Work Journal:
If we do not deal with our trauma, we inadvertently hand it down to the next generation. We often take out our pain and hurt on those we love the most – which is ourselves and those closest to us – our family and friends. So, intergenerational trauma is trauma that is passed down behaviourally to the next generation: if we’re angry and act angry all the time to others, our kids will think that’s normal and do the same. If we ignore each other and deprive each other of love and affection in our relationships, our kids see and feel that deprivation of love and might think it’s normal.
By no means is it just indigenous people who suffer with intergenerational trauma. I work in a public library and I see often people who are suffering from the impacts of poor parenting, addicted and/or mentally ill, coming into conflict with the criminal justice system, with no clear path forward to a better way of living. Jesse Thistle’s paternal grandfather was of Scottish descent, who came from Cape Breton after a terrible impoverished and brutal childhood. He was more broken than Jesse’s Métis grandparents in Saskatchewan, though he covered it up well.
But for indigenous people, that trauma was more widespread because of the actions of the Canadian government historically. The residential school system and the stealing of indigenous children from their families and homes is a huge part of that. But Jesse Thistle also has as ancestors, Métis rebels who fought with Louis Riel in 1885. After the defeat of the rebellion, Métis participants were stripped of their lands, not allowed to have jobs or educations, and hence, like Jesse’s grandparents, built cabins on road allowances. The dislocation runs deep, and Jesse Thistle’s difficult life was but a recent manifestation of this profound fracture.
I would say that Jesse Thistle’s story informs us that there is hope, there is resiliency, and it can be found in connection: connecting to others and to one’s self and one’s own culture. Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: the first and last days of the war on drugs, said this: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection”. Ultimately, that is the theme of From the Ashes.
I hardly know where to start to discuss the relevance of Jesse Thistle’s story. The importance of connection, of family, of having the courage to face one’s demons and takes steps to overcome them so as not to pass them on to the next generation, the miracle of human resilience – all are worthy subjects for discussion. We know that the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic has taken a toll on fragile lives, and the number of overdose deaths has increased substantially. It is necessary that we stay apart physically, but the importance of staying connected in ways that are safe cannot be overestimated.
From the Ashes reminds me that we need to acknowledge the role of public policy in damaging the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual lives of indigenous peoples, and consider the implications of intergenerational trauma on individuals, families, communities, and nations. Supporting indigenous people in reconnecting to their cultural heritage is more important than we know. We can’t do it for them, but we can support it through the First Nations organizations like M’Wikwedong Friendship Centre in Owen Sound that are helping to make it happen.
My personal takeaway from reading From the Ashes is this: you never know how a kind word, a friendly gesture, a smile, the courage to make a connection, can make a difference in someone’s life. Kindness is always worthwhile.
I would like to recommend some further reading to anyone with an interest in the causes of addiction and homelessness (I am, after all, a librarian; Reader’s Advisory is my jam). Both of Johann Hari’s books are superb and quite readable: Chasing the Scream, and Lost Connections. I also highly recommend Dr. Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: close encounters with addiction – it should be required reading for every Canadian, in my opinion.
From the Ashes: my story of being Métis, homeless, and finding my way by Jesse Thistle is not an easy book to read, but it is a very important book to read for Canadians. We here in Grey-Bruce are not insulated from addiction, homelessness, and the intergenerational trauma that causes them. We can see the effects all around us, in every community in the region.
Jesse Thistle tells us in this book about the way these things ravage lives — but he also tells us there is hope, there is resilience, and there are solutions.
Vote for your favourite book and community library. At the end of the Grey County Reads contest in April, three winners will be chosen randomly from among all voters to receive gift certificates for and one library will win $200 worth of books.