The Interview with Jesse Thistle

Best Selling Author, Professor and His Story of Homelessness & Addiction

 About Jesse Thistle:

Jesse Thistle is Métis-Cree, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

He is an assistant professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto.

 

He won The Governor General’s Academic Medal in 2016,

Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation Scholar and a Vanier Scholar.  

He has won many awards including Kobo Emerging Writer Award, Indigenous Voices Award, Odessa Award in 2014

Dr. James Wu prize in  2015

Voted 50 Most Influential Torontonians of 2019

He lives in Toronto. Visit him at and on Twitter 

To Contact Jesse: jessethistle.com

Twitter: @michifman

On a Personal Note:

I met Jesse well before he was a famous author. He was speaking at a medical conference about homelessness. The way he conveyed the information and what he shared in his short time on the stage as a panellist made me want to meet him- so I did. I felt there was something deep and real about him. I wasn't the only one waiting to talk to him.

I would only discover later as I read his memoir why he was so deep and passionate about ending homelessness. I'll be honest, I am always a bit reluctant to read a book on hardship because it is so painful to hear of the kind of things people go through. Jesse's book was unique in that it is true to the homelessness and tremendous struggle he faced but there was always an underlying string of hope throughout it. The humour was also a wonderful surprise.

 

I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. No wonder it has become a National bestseller and it is making it's mark Internationally and will continue to do so  This book keeps popping up in social media platforms because how it is so skillfully written and people are enjoying the writing and understanding the struggle of his story.

This book is like sitting at a campfire and listening to someone share their intimate life with you. It's a very hard book to put down. Jesse's voice comes through. If you have read From The Ashes, you'll love this interview, if you haven't you will be educated and want to read his memoir once you'd listened to Jesse.  After we were done the interview he said to me "you know so much about me, but I don't know much about you." He cares about people and that is one ingredient that keeps him going. Note, his wife Lucie is also such a beautiful force in his life.

 

Lalit Chawla

The Interview

This interview was dictated to close as possible to the actual conversation, however, there may be errors in the dictated process. Capturing the intentions and emotions through words to reflect the conversation can be incomplete).

In this sit-down interview, we cover:

  • Why he considers this a love story

  • How he got the book contract from Simon & Shuster 

  • His process of how he wrote the book

  • His philosophy and advice on how to make changes in one’s life 

  • What is the definition of homelessness and what does that mean in terms of the Indigenous experience as a result of history

  • What healthcare professionals can do to be better stewards of care

  • History of how residential schooling came about, why they were built far away from reservations and the consequences of that.

  • What happened in the residential schools

  • A review of some of the legal practices that were done specifically at that time. You may be surprised to learn about them.

 

  • Jesse’s response on how to bring empathy back to a clinical setting.

  • How and why the demographics of homelessness has changed from the typical single male to youth, single families, women, elderly veterans, indigenous and immigrants. 

  • He shares a very insightful perspective on how we as a society have changed the way we look at housing.

  • What advice he’d give his younger self

  • Advice to drug addicts

Lalit:

Jesse welcome to the show. And thank you so much for joining me today to talk about your book.

Jesse:

Well it's an honour to be here, doctor. Thank you.

Lalit:

Please call me Lalit, if uhhhhhh, if that's too hard, you can call me doctor (laughing).

Jesse:

I'll call you Lalit.

Lalit:

I love that, you got it. Perfect. Perfect. You know, your book is so beautifully written and it's so eloquent. You're very vulnerable, raw, and I really enjoyed reading it so very visceral. I certainly want to talk about your life, your teachings as an academic, your experience when you were homeless and, and some of the journey, but I would like to start off by reading a passage in the book, because for any of our listeners who haven't read the book wanted to people to get a taste of how wonderful it is.

So here we go:

 

(Excerpt from From the Ashes) page 175).

 

At 7:30 AM the next day, Uncle Ron pulled back into the driveway. I was still staring out the window after downing pot after pot of coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette. My teeth buzzed like I'd eaten a hive of bees. Uncle Ron slumped over the steering wheel. The car was still running, but the car stereo was off- he always drove with '70s rock blaring.

He finally got out of the car and made his way to the house. I heard the grind of gravel with each step. I poured a cup of coffee and left it on the table. The floorboards creaked as he found his way upstairs and sat down. It appeared he'd been crying, which is odd to me since he was so powerful, so full of male bravado,- I didn't know he could cry.

I was afraid to ask what had happened and went back into the sunroom to my chair by the window. A stand of trees caught my eye, the tops of the birch branches dancing in the wind, the sun tangled up in their rusty leaves. The clink of Uncle Ron spoon's against the side of his mug sounded out like chorus of sledgehammers striking railway ties. He cleared him throat and asked me to join him.

"I don't know how to say it." He said not looking at me, another oddity. I pulled up a chair to the table as silent as I could be.

You know it's so visceral. I could hear him walking from the car. That's what just made, makes your so wonderful as I was reading it. I wanted to start off by asking you, why do you think men have trouble expressing emotions? You had mentioned in the book, your grandfather had his own style of expressing love. And I think that's a fairly common scenario. I wanted to get your thoughts on that.

Jesse:

Well, I just think that we're raised not to ... more emphasis is placed on like you know, actionable things, possessions, expressing our anger or aggression. It's privileged to, you know, we're rewarded for this, you know. It's a capitalist mentality out there. And if you have that killer instinct and that's what you need. Men or boys that try to express their feelings or emotions, they're shut down. And this happens early in our education and it's to the detriment, to the health of men. Ultimately, as we're given these emotions for a reason and we're supposed to express them. So to have half of our emotions suppressed and another half rewarded creates an imbalance in men and families.

Lalit:

You said the book is a story about love. Can you expand on that?

Jesse:

Yeah. Yeah. It is the story. it's a story of love. And so the highest love for me, as an Indigenous person, is community love. Is the love of land, is the love of my culture and my people. And so early in the book, you see that I'm with my Kokum (grandmother) on the land. I'm speaking my language, I'm picking berries. She's teaching me how to be a good relative. To live in what we call [inaudible]. So all of our relations and creation , and that abruptly stopped when I was very young. I was three and a half years old when I lost my parents. And I ended up in a strange new world in Brampton, Ontario. And I didn't know where the love that I knew was. I didn't know where my Kokum and Mushum are, I didn't know where my mom and dad were - and I'm all of a sudden in this new land where I'm disconnected from all that love. And so I spend the rest of my life, literally trying to understand and be loved and let love into my life, and it doesn't happen until years after I go through all kinds of stuff on the streets. And with addiction and through the justice system that I finally come to know the love of creator, the love of community and my wife.

Lalit:

There were so many elements I'm sure in your life that you could have chosen. How did you choose the elements when you were writing your book?

Jesse:

What do you mean by elements?

Lalit:

Well, I mean, different aspects, different stories. How did you recall, you know, this person, that event. How did you...

Jesse:

How did I choose?

Lalit:

Yeah. How did you figure that process out?

Jesse:

A lot of it had to do with, I had done my AA(Alcoholics Anonymous) steps. So I'm a practitioner of the 12 step program. That's how I got sober at this Christian rehab. And so part of my program was to figure out my addiction by writing them down and really trying to understand what happened in my addiction through story. Right?Narration. And so I'd been collecting these all along. When I got out of rehab and I had them. And when I was offered the book contract, I sent them all to Simon & Schuster. And they went through with me to pick out the ones that would appear in the book, because there are a lot more, they just didn't make it all into the book. And so I only picked what was needed to give the reader the idea of the tone of the kind of life that I was living.

Jesse:

Right, because if I was to write about life, that way, 12 years on and off the streets, it would be volumes of books. And so we had to be very selective in the stories that we talked about so that we weren't overlapping with other ones. And so we weren't alienating our reader because there's so much stuff that I went through that is just so far outside the realm of normal for other people; that to put them all in there, sure they're dramatic, but it ultimately would alienate the reader. So we had to make conscious decisions on which ones to include.

Lalit:

Well, there was a lot of humour in there through the book. I mean, there was obviously also a lot of hardship -severe hardship, but the humour was really evident. I think that's what also made the book very enjoyable. From the moment you decided to put the book together, do you have a rough idea how long it took? Because writing is certainly not easy. I mean, most people say they'd write a book, but very few people actually complete it.

Jesse:

Yeah, humour was a big central part of it right and writing. And I always tried to, even in the most ridiculous of situations in the book, tried to lighten it up with a little humour, because again, it could just turn people off if it's not interesting. So, and then the second part of what you're saying there -I don't know what to say to that really?

Lalit:

Was it months or a year or two years?

Jesse:

No. I, I entered the- I saw Shelagh Rogers (Journalist for CBC-Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in August of 2017. We had breakfast, and then that was in the middle of August, and then by the end of November of that year, I had the book written. So it took me three months. The book has now been number one twice, as long as it took to write the actual thing and it only took me three months. It's been on now a year. It's, you know, that's four times longer than it took to write the book than it's been on the charts. So, yeah. Well, I don't know. It just came out of me.

Lalit:

Did you have a particular time you wrote, did you have a process?

Jesse:

Yeah, I would get up early in the morning at like 4:30 and I go down and make myself, we have one of those-It's like a, an espresso maker or the Italian ones that you put on the stove. I make like a big thing of espresso-huge thing of coffee, and then go into my room for about three or four hours and write until I start to edit. Once I start editing, then I know I'm not fresh anymore. And that the ideas aren't just flowing through me anymore. So I just walk away. Because that's me trying to force a story right?

Lalit:

Were you more of a typer or did you have a pen and paper or did you have a method that

Jesse:

No, I did do everything on a computer. I did everything on an old Dell that I bought with money that I got for school. And so nothing special. The regular old PC.

Lalit:

Yeah. Nice. A question I'm sure you've been asked many times, but why did you write your memoir? Because, I mean...

 

Jesse:

I was just asked, I was asked to write the memoir. I'm a scholar. That's the way I see myself. And I won a bunch of awards back in 2016, that caught media's attention. And they came to do a story on me with the Toronto Star. The guy asked how I got to school and I told him, basically I robbed a store. That's how I got to school. That was how I started. And he was like "what?! Like, that's not normal." And so I told him my life story and he put the story out in the trial, sir. And then I got called from Simon & Schuster and they offered me a major book contract. And that's how the book became. So I'm an accidental author. Usually, authors have to write a manuscript and shop it around or go to auction or all these things. I didn't do any of that. It just kind of happened.

 

Lalit:

Yeah, that's quite a story. I want to turn to a part in your life where you made the change in the rehabilitation process. You talk about how you actually went into your new Academic goals; I guess you called it micro-goals. On page 313 you wrote, "if I can make it to the next minute, I thought then I might have a chance to be something more than a struggling, crack head. So do you have any advice for someone who is struggling with, you know, making a change because they may think, 'you know, well Jesse, yeah. You're maybe one in a million, but I could never do that.'

Jesse:

Yeah. So I was given a teaching years ago about choice- the teaching goes, I won't go through the reveal. I'll just tell you the lesson. The teaching is, that when you know that you have a choice, you can just choose to do whatever you want. And all the things that you tell yourself as to why you made that choice are just justification in your mind, are making up to justify your choice. So ultimately making a choice is as simple as (for example)I'm going to choose this bottle and have a drink. (Jesse drinks a glass of water).All of life is like that, every single bit. And so you need to know that you have agency and that you have choice. The second half of that is life changes through repetition and habit. You have to also understand that and that habits don't start through grand gestures. They're not like 'I'm going to run a marathon every three days,' no set something that's measurable in time.

 

That's small and repeatable. And just do that with consistency over and over until it becomes habit. When it becomes habit, then you're ready for another change, another choice. And you just continue to do that. And the way I like to describe it as like real change, the real monumental change happens incrementally; like in a cave, a Stalagmite at the bottom, growing, growing, growing, growing into like a pillar of calcium that started with one little drop over time and consistency. And so it's like that with anything that you do. If you want to be the most decorated undergrad student, then you chart out your time, you manage it well, and you consistently show up and do that thing that gets you on top. Whether that be studying, learning new things, handing your stuff in on time, all of these are habits, right? And so you just keep doing that over time. And eventually, it'll add up to a doctor's degree or a PhD in history, or a marathon, but it all starts as a mustard seed. It's it all starts as a small choice that you make over and over and over and over again.

Lalit:

Yes, well said. When you were in rehab, can you talk about, the etiquette course that you took? It was like, I think dr. Jennifer Lennox Terrion She was a professor in Ottawa right? (still is). Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jesse:

Sure, sure yes, I was in a program called Harvest House. It's a Christian rehab, and they’re the only place that would take me (laughs) this place. Like, so it was a little culty, a little culty, this place, you know, a little Christiany. And they had this partnership with the University of Ottawa to take guys and train them in etiquette and communication and how to like, you know, take care of themselves. And so when I started this program with Dr. Terrion. I'd been sober for maybe two months or something, and I had never really finished anything in my life. I didn't have an education, I could barely read properly. And most importantly, there had been an erosion in my hygiene and my own etiquette because I'd been homeless and in and out of the justice system. Just seeing being in between places for so long, you start to lose those skills.

These are skills that we learn as kids, you know, our parents teach us and then we just practice them throughout our life. And they seem like second nature. Well, if you haven't done them for a long ass time, then it's starts to get hard to, you know, press your clothes, make your bed, shave, take care of yourself. All of these things are learned. And so when I got into that class, I confided in my peers and "I need help,I can't do any of this anymore."And I'm really rough around the edges. And she and her students really took the time to help me along. And I graduated, I did well with those modules and I got this little piece of paper that said that I graduated. And to me that's like one of the greatest things I ever did. It is the first time my name ever appeared on anything that said University. And it just made me dream. It made me dream in the most beautiful way. And so that's what that is and the story of that certificate and what those modules meant.

Lalit:

That I think that's such an important step is making part of those micro-changes is how you self care, self love, which you also talk about in your book. I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about the whole issue of homelessness. You're a Professor at York University. You have a lot of knowledge about this in Canada. The Indigenous population is eight times more likely to be homeless and that problem is that is growing. What are some things we can do in the healthcare profession and in society, or as individuals to change that?

Jesse:

Well, I would say first, I think that any physician should read the definition of Indigenous homelessness that I crafted when I was at the COH, that's the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, it articulates that Indigenous homelessness is different as unique drivers that are separated from Canadian homelessness which is really about a structure of habit, not having a structure of habitation to live with or live in. (See links above) So I would ask to start there so that physicians understand that Indigenous homelessness is really about a disconnection from healthy relationships over time due to colonial interruption because of the way that the state was formed and operates. So Indigenous people lost their land, not once, not twice, multiple times over through historic displacement and contemporary displacement with things like Wet'suwet'en or Muskrat Falls or anywhere where the land is like adulterated by settlers, that that creates homelessness.

There's been a disconnection from language, from spirituality, from our domiciles and our architecture of home. That's been that's a kind of homelessness that indigenous people endure. That's unique, you know, in residential schools day schools, they were all designed to take away that culture. To go with that, there is an epistemologicaI, I forget there's one -Dr. Alex Wilson has a really specific names for it. So the loss of worldviews that happened. So Indigenous people saw them as themselves as within the natural world with their kinship structures as a kin member. So that was changed or conditioned out of Indigenous people through the Christianization indoctrination process. So we've lost even the way that we think in pre-colonial times. And so all these factors lead to houselessness in the field, in emergency, in walk-ins, in clinics, in all these places where doctors come in contact with them.

So I would ask doctors whether they're even aware of the definition or the history of the people that they're studying or working with or treating. And so that's square one. And then beyond that, when they start to really understand that; I would say that they should read my work with Dr. Janet Smylie around creating relatives with indigenous homeless people within clinical settings and how that can be done through an indigenous worldview lens. We studied this in Manitoba - in Winnipeg and Saskatoon, and we found that there were four protocols of Indigenous ways of interacting that we should be bringing into the medical establishment to change and hopefully prevent the loss of indigenous homeless lives. And that's online. It's easily searchable. (See Link above).

Lalit:

Okay. I'll put a link in the show notes for that. So it's easily accessible. That would be really helpful.

One of the things I have been actually surprised about is how many people don't know don't know about the Canadian history of residential schooling. Right. Could you maybe just explain for the listeners, maybe we could just talk about that briefly,what actually happened?

Jesse:

What happened?, Okay, so

There was always, within colonization, especially after the war of 1812 in Canada, native people were stopped being seen as allies, military, and like social allies and we were start to being seen as a social problem. And so there were efforts then to try and what's called assimilate- to make indigenous people part of the settler state. They did this by renouncing their connection to land in their family. That was like the very earliest iteration of that. And starting in, the 1840s and fifties, people thought that 'Hey, maybe we should educate the native out of indigenous people so that they would have a quicker road into what's called civilization. The civilizations attached to like notions of social Darwinism where colonizers back in the day used to think that they were superior.

They were the most civilized people. And so Egerton Ryerson, I believe, proposed to have these residential schools where indigenous people could send their children. And some of them started here. I think Mohawk instituted started in like 1830 or 40 and that's near Bradford, near the Six Nations Reserve. And so it was always there. So when Canada formed in 1867 and started forming treaties with Indigenous Peoples out West. Part of the First Nations, signing those treaties to rent their land, basically to Canada, let Canadians use their land was that Canada had a responsibility to educate Indigenous kids. And this was supposed to be something that was done on reserve with the family of the kids around. That was what was agreed upon and treaties 1-9, I believe. And so when Canada formed and they got the upper hand they just turned away from that responsibility.

And they realized that they couldn't afford really to educate all these Indigenous kids. And so they came up with the idea, off of the Dawes Act and the States, to have these large industrial schools where they could reeducate native kids and create Canadian citizens out of them; where they'd be wage earners for the emerging economy in the West. That was the original intention of them. Now, the second half of that is part of transforming Indigenous peoples into tax being Canadian citizens was to get them off of the land. They wanted to separate Indigenous folks from the land so that they could actually take the land and they wouldn't have to fulfill treaty obligations like paying stipends and resources, education and healthcare to Indigenous peoples.

So the government's solution was to offload the cost of education, these large industrial schools, to Anglican Catholic Presbyterian Moravian, all these different types of orders,Christian orders, to educate these natives, right, because it was cheaper for them to do that. And so within this, you had a recipe for disaster. The Canadian government started building schools far away from reserves because initially the kids would just run back and go back home. So they said to solve this problem, we should put them hundreds of kilometres away from home. Reserves are where the kids are taken and then once they get to these schools, then we're going to take away their language, their, their sense of self, as Indigenous- all their cultural practices. We're going to replace it with English Judeo Christian worldview- arithmetic, English, anything that kids now learn. And so that was early on. It was like this, and these schools were notorious for having high rates of tuberculosis and other sorts of diseases. The death rate was, I think, worse than going to World War One as a Canadian soldier. You know, you had a higher chance of surviving WWI than you did surviving a residential school. And so that's what they are and that's how they were born. And they became a massive problem because like, from the outset, I think that there was a duplicitous shirking away of educational duties that the government just never felt ...

Lalit:

There was a lot of abuse in those schools- sexual, physical abuse, and the children were taken away from their parents. And if the parents tried to stop that (process of children being removed) the parents were put in jail.

Jesse:

Yeah. The parents were put in jail, their houses would be seized there. You know, it just, never ended. It was like a,... you gotta remember, this is just one side, one facet of the colonial project that was going on at that time. It was also illegal for First Nations, Métis, Inuit people to practice or talk their language - they couldn't do that in public. They couldn't get lawyers to represent their issues. So the abuse that they were going through - it just never made it to court because it was illegal for them to go to court. If they wanted to get educated, they were stripped of their First Nations Status and put out in society without protection from Indian status. So it just goes on and on and on and on. It's so complex and that's how they got people off the land and that's how Canada exists where it is today.

Lalit:

And the last residential school I think only closed 1996 if I am correct. If I remember that or 97.

Jesse:

Yeah. Yeah, 1996 I think it was Battleford or somewhere in Saskatchewan (it was in Punnichy, Saskatchewan near Battleford)

 

Lalit:

So there's a lot of long-term- the aftermath of the, of the abuse that happened, certainly plays out today in homelessness and addiction, post-traumatic stress from all that. A society that never got to be with their own children, even. So,

Jesse:

Yeah. Yeah. There was a halting of, of grieving of loss of just disconnection on all of it. These have created intergenerational trauma within a lot of indigenous families that have had to endure this. Then there's the trauma of poverty, the trauma of just trying to find yourself after...you see your grandmother or grandfather went through with one of these schools, it reverberates through the line and it gets worse actually over time; it does not get better. So the dysfunction increases as you go through time unless someone puts a stop to it.

Lalit:

Plus as a society that hasn't had children in their circles, then they don't know what it's like to live with children. And then all of a sudden they get older, the children come back and there's so much damage and then they don't know how to help them. And there wasn't really any good programs out there. I mean trust is a very...., I think trust for people who are vulnerable, or homeless, that's a real big issue because if they come into a medical clinic, we know it's a fact that they get under treated, they are stereotyped. And so trust is really a big thing that is not there for them from the medical profession.

Jesse:

Yeah. I agree. I still don't trust a lot of doctors. Here I am as a professional, as a professor and with a home and I still have trouble with that. Like that's so deeply ingrained in me from the street life. Not to trust, not to trust the doctors. Yeah.

Lalit:

You've had a lot of visits. So many injuries. I mean, the, the three and a half story fall - with your foot oh I have a one question to ask you, how is your foot from that?

Jesse:

It's not good. I have to walk downstairs sideways, and there's a lot of scar tissue around the, it's like a...there's an L shape cut. And right at the corner, there is like a lot of scar tissue, and I need to go through and have the hardware removed. I never had the hardware inside removed. And I'm just terrified of going to the doctors and having them open that up and take that out- it's terrifying. I don't know. And to my detriment, I'm probably been in pain a lot longer than I need to be, but I remember what that was like and I can't just go and do that.

Lalit:

You know, I've worked in emergency rooms and one of the stereotypes, anther there are many stereotypes, unfortunately, stereotypes such as Indigenous people have a high pain threshold and/or they're always drug-seeking - which has not been my experience whatsoever. In fact I've known so many patients who do not want that, but those stereotypes persist. Do you have any insight into that or as to why?

Jesse:

Yeah. These stereotypes stem back to there, they come from contact, right? Like if you really trace them back through time they come from like earliest: There's the Noble, the Epic Savage, and then there's the Cannibal Savage and they're two halves of the same stereotype that Europeans projected onto native people to make sense of their world. It says more about the Europeans than it does about the Indigenous people. And then these things have persisted the whole way, all the way up. Because it's easier to attribute negative qualities onto and say "Oh, they're that way because they're this" without actually looking at who that person is, what's their story. What's their history. What's their actual circumstances that explains why they are the way they are, you know? And then when you get that, then you can see - "Oh hold on, this person's not actually a drug-seeking opioid addict. They're a high school student that got into an accident at the bus stop and they hurt their foot and anybody would be wanting some sort of pain relief at that time." It's not because they're Native or because they're Indigenous. But that takes time and patience and trust to be able to build up that rapport and to find those stories out. And I don't think that a lot of doctors take the time to do that. And so they just resort to these older, easier stereotypes that just make their world easier to navigate. I guess. I don't know.

Lalit:

This is probably not a good question, but, or a hard question to answer-how do you bring empathy back in? Because I think sometimes in the medical profession, empathy gets lost.

Jesse:

Yeah. People get burnt outright? People get burnt out. You probably see the same dude show up in the emerge five times searching for oxies (Oxycontins) . I don't know? Doing something that makes you think that way about Indigenous peoples and then you just get burnt out and you start equating that to everyone. So what I think I've asked is for doctors to see their patients as relatives.

Then it's simple. How your mom comes in, you know, how do you treat her? Do you treat her with hospital service in the hallway or do you make sure that she finds a room and you build a good rapport of trust and make sure that she's got a good patient advocate. That's looking out for her interests, all those things you would do for your family member do that for all of your patients.

 

 

Lalit:

Actually that's exactly what I tell my residents or medical students is that "ask (yourself) what would you do if this was my family member,? You know, your wife, your son, your brother, your sister, your mother, and then the answers and the care will flow accordingly. So I'm glad to hear you say that. That's that is good.

Jesse:

Thank you.

Lalit:

You know, in 2014 they did, I think they did a survey or some study, but there was about a quarter of a million Canadians who are homeless, and a generation ago, typically the homeless, was a single male who was homeless. Now that demographic has changed where we see women youth, elderly veterans, indigenous people immigrants. So there has been a shift in that respect. Can you talk about that?

Jesse:

Sure. Yeah. The change that you're talking about really starts in like the early 90s in Canada, when there's a turning away, in most major cities, from zoning things for co-op housing (for lower income housing) The city started rezoning, these for condominium developments, and this happened all throughout the nineties while the homeless issue increased.

And that's where it kind of started. That's really the genesis of it. And I think that there's a sickness in society now about the way that we look at housing. We for a long time become gluttons of property, or we'd look at it as a way out - somewhere to park money, make money off of. You know, when really originally back in the eighties and seventies, and prior to that, house was a house to live in. This conception of some place to park your money or flip, is a new modern phenomenon. And so I think that's the sickness that's driving homelessness is that our thirst for profit. A lot of those condominiums that got rezoned, or they sit empty now because people see them as a safe investment, right? You get a much higher return on two condominiums over the course of a year than you do over a bond where your money's supposed to accrue.

Jesse:

So these housing has become kind of like a bank for a lot of people to make money off of. And then beyond that people have been buying houses. Airbnb has apps of the sort that have been used to rent out smaller spaces for more money to less people. And so all of these factors are at play constricting, the amount of housing- affordable housing that's been built for lower class people. And this has been going on now for 30 years. And so the end result is now it's not just men who are on the margins of society. Now it's single families, mothers, it's old people, it's veterans. It's like all strata of society that aren't making $60,000 and above. They're the ones who are falling into housing and homelessness now, you know, because they can't even afford a house. They change even the mortgage rules, you have to have 20% down and housing is not attainable for so many people now,. It's a product of policy and the way that the city's formed. We can change it, it just needs political will.

Lalit:

I've certainly seen that over the years of practice. I've seen more single families and mothers even, especially the elderly, they can't afford where they're living or where they're living they're living in squalor. It's not a good environment at all.

Jesse:

Yeah,

Lalit:

Jesse, I could talk with you for a long time. I want to kind of turn, I know you have to go. I want to turn just to some fun questions. Actually, I'm gonna ask you one question, which is kind of a segue, I guess. What advice would you give to your younger 14 year old self? If you were to look back at your younger self, is there any particular advice you would give with what you know now?

Jesse:

Yeah. I would tell my young self to listen to the old man - that he does know what he's talking about.

Lalit:

Which old man?

Jesse:

My grandpa.

Lalit:

Okay.

Jesse:

Yeah. Listen to him. He was a prick and he had lots of issues, but he ultimately did love you. And he didn't, he didn't mean to hurt you, I'd say that. No. And then beyond that, I'd probably say if you're gonna use drugs, use them with people that you trust and don't go like exploring outside of those trusted networks. That's where I got in a lot of trouble and I would also tell them to get into school earlier. You know, I've missed half of my life. And if I would've gotten to school earlier, maybe I could have been a professor when I was 30. I'd have a boat now, my house would be paid off and I had two kids. Right.

Lalit:

Well, what would you ...would you say anything? I mean, not all doctors are bad, not all healthcare professionals are bad. Would you say anything to help them try again? Because you know, the trouble with trust is once you've had trust broken, then you don't come back and you seek help. I mean, ultimately you are where you're at because you did get help from- ultimately nobody succeeds in life on their own.

Jesse:

Yeah. Well, even the doctors, that did my surgery, even the doctors I interacted with, they were all good people and I just didn't listen to them. Because that was in my addiction. So I couldn't listen to them. So I would say, to understand that people make up institutions and within institutions, there are good and bad people. There are people that try and are there for the right reasons. And there's other people that are there because it's a paycheck, just like any other job. And so not to take it too seriously, but then also to recognize the humanity within healthcare and that they are people too. They're going to have a bad or a good day and to be mindful of that right? Because sometimes when you don't make a bond with someone on trust, you feel because that person is treating you a certain way and maybe they are or maybe they're just having a bad day though.

Jesse:

And then you just caught them at a bad time, you know? And so I think that's really important to understand when we're talking about systems and institutions. I get asked this question about the police all the time. And for me, it's a same level of distrust that I have for police, I have for doctors. And so that's what I always say. I have to remind myself that they are people and that they're fallible and they're part of an institution and that can all be changed with a good policy and protocol.

Lalit:

Yeah. And if you don't find the right one on your first, second, third don't stop is what I would say. You know, you know, there are people that can help you.

Jesse:

And that's critical, critical, especially now it's so hard to find a doctor. Oh my God. I spent years trying to find one. And so as a homeless person, who's transient, back in the day, or even now I can't even imagine how hard it is, you know, can't even

Lalit:

It's true. It's is difficult. I mean, there's not enough healthcare professionals around. There's so much need that's part of the problem with so many healthcare professionals are getting burnt out and we do need to fix that. Yeah. I'd like to ask you are you reading anything currently right now? Any book or have you read one that you like?

 

Jesse:

Yeah, let me just pull my massive pile of books here. This book is Picking up the Pieces by Carey Newman. Who's a master carver on the west coast and Kristie Hudson. It's about residential school memories in the making of the witness blankets. He's a master carver and he took pieces from all the residential schools and all the different stories and embedded them in this long art installation. And this is an amazing, amazing, amazing book. That's doing really good work. I think even some of the proceeds go to support the remembrance of Indigenous experiences in residential schools.

Lalit:

Wonderful. Wonderful.

Jesse:

Yeah, it was a little heavy, but I'm sure.

Lalit:

You're a professor you're teaching, you're doing a lot of book tours now, it's become virtual book tours, and what do you do for fun? What do you, what.

Jesse:

My hobby for fun is to play with my cat. Number one, she's always around. And I tease her until she meows scratches me. I go for long walks with the wife, we're doing IVF and we're trying to train and get our physical health up.

Lalit:

Invitro fertilization, just so

Jesse:

Yeah, yeah.

Lalit:

And congratulations.

Jesse:

We need energy. Thank you. And then I go to the beach a lot. I go to the beach a lot these days. Yeah. So between all that I'm relaxed and that's what I do.

Lalit:

That's wonderful. One little final question. If you were to put a saying on a billboard, on a big highway for the world to see, what would you write on that billboard,

Jesse:

Think of the next person, think of the next person.

Lalit:

Think of the next person, okay. Wonderful.

Jesse:

That comes from my grandfather. He used to say that, because we used to pee on the toilet yeah. And he's like, "why are you doing this? You're not thinking of the next person!" And they told me that one time and it stuck. And I stopped being on the toilet because I think of the next person. And I do that with everything I do now in life. You know, I don't want to leave pee on the toilet for anybody. So I don't know, (laughter)

Lalit:

I'm going to tell that to my nine-year-old son when he does that. So that's wonderful. (laughing)

Jesse:

Okay. Let me know how it goes.

Lalit:

Do you have any ask of the audience? I mean, I know that I want to say to the audience that I'm going to be giving a few books away- From the Ashes. Everybody should read this book, send an email, get in touch with me and I will be gifting you some book books from Jesse Thistle's book. I think everybody should read it. But do you have an ask from the audience Jesse?

Jesse:

Yeah. Just to support your local shelter and food bank. Try to like help them in a good way. I don't know. I know times are tough for everybody, but maybe just maybe do something pro bono. I know it's in a lot of your listeners power or just donate some of your time to helping one of these orgs. Cause like all hands on deck with these kinds of orgs and helps.

Lalit:

What's the best way people can get a hold of you if they want to reach out to you?

Jesse:

They can follow me @michifman on Twitter or Instagram, or you can follow me at Jesse Thistle on my author page on Facebook. Yeah, that's the other place or you can come to York University and see me in the Humanities.

Lalit:

That's fantastic. Jesse, thank you so much for taking the time today and talking with me and thank you for writing the book and good luck with everything and we will be in touch again. Thank you so much.

Jesse:

Thank you, Lalit, it's been wonderful. Thank you. And thank you all listeners. It's been wonderful. Thank you.

Links noted in Interview from Jesse Thistle

https://homelesshub.ca/IndigenousHomelessness (Definition of Homelessness via Canadian Observatory on Homelessness)

 

https://www.cmaj.ca/content/192/10/E257 Pekiwewin (coming home): advancing good relations with Indigenous people experiencing homelessness. 

Jesse Thistle and Janet Smylie

CMAJ March 09, 2020 192 (10) E257-E259; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1503/cmaj.200199

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