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Jesse Thistle’s memoir, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, took me on a heartbreaking journey of his life as a homeless Indigenous man. His resilience as he battled substance abuse and poverty (and eventually earned his GED in jail) was just part of this courageous story. Although there are many reasons to cheer Thistle on as he struggles to overcome intergenerational trauma, I was drawn in by the honesty of his writing.
This is not an easy story to read and I’d encourage grade 11 and 12 students to read it but still caution teenagers (16+) that there are many difficult aspects to Thistle’s life story that could be upsetting for them. However, the focus on the power of relationships and education shines through. In a CBC interview, the author said, “It was painful, but it was also very beautiful. These were really hard, painful, sharp memories. But I also saw there were people that were trying to help me, like the kind shop owner who gave me food or my friend at the shelter who watched out for my shoes. My brother Jerry always took care of me and took me in and I had a lot of support from my wife, Lucie. It's the good and the bad.”
Although I haven’t experienced homelessness, nor was I abandoned by my parents, I did grow up in Brampton, Ontario, like Thistle did. He often shared ideas and situations that were easy to relate to, like anecdotes about school and friends and family. His family stories about tracing his Métis ancestry and his poetry also share raw spirit and dignity.
I’ve shared some of the poems that are interspersed through the book with students in my Grade 10 and 12 English classes. The poetry stands on its own but it is also a natural segue into a ‘book talk’ about this important memoir about prejudice and racism in Canada.
For instance, the poem “Rou Garous” refers to werewolf-like monsters often found in francophone cultures. The poem is about a group of farm boys who attacked Jesse when he was hitchhiking home on the Trans-Canada Highway. The trees hide him and the attackers almost kill him. The irony incorporates a Métis spiritual perspective because the land and the forest save him. We discussed the use of descriptive language and allusions as well as irony when I shared the book and read this poem to my class. These are the last four lines of Thistle's poem:
In time, I chanced upon good old Highway One.
It felt safe,
Like some mighty river of asphalt that had the current to carry me
I stood there all night with my thumb out, begging to be picked up.
I waved my arms at each passing vehicle but no one stopped.
Or even slowed down.
In the fall, I had the privilege of listening to Thistle speak at the Kitchener Public Library's #85 Queen speaker series. Thistle is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Equity Studies at York University in Toronto. He has won a number of awards as a Métis Cree scholar and wrote a new document that takes intergenerational trauma into account. The new definition of Indigenous homelessness was for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (a non-profit research institute) that Thistle worked with. Thistle is also part of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Legacy Schools Program and generously visits classrooms in person and via Skype. You can follow him on Twitter @michifman.
Chosen as one of the five finalists for Canada Reads 2020, From the Ashes has also won a number of other awards: Globe and Mail Book of the Year, Indigo Book of the Year and a CBC Best Canadian Nonfiction Book of the Year. Jesse Thistle’s story has helped me start to re-examine my own understanding of broken colonial thinking and begin to develop tools to help work towards reconciliation through education.
Over the past 25 years, Llana Bruggemann has managed to teach every grade (Kindergarten to Grade 12). She is currently working at her dream job as an English and Visual Arts teacher at Listowel District Secondary School. Llana lives in Waterloo, Ontario with her husband, Thomas.