When a police officer and a social worker found three-and-a-half-year-old Jesse Thistle and his two older brothers alone in an apartment, the boys were taken into foster care.
What the authorities didn’t know that day in 1979 was Thistle’s maternal grandparents lived in a remote cabin on Saskatchewan land they could never own; part of the Métis community that was pushed off their land in the Battle of Batoche in 1885. The officer could not have known that Thistle’s favourite thing in the world was his grandmother’s bannock or that she taught him how to harvest Saskatoon berries along the CN Railway. He did not know that Thistle’s grandfather built the cabin from nearby aspen trees on a prairie alive with rivers and streams, muskrat, fish, bears and elk.
“I was taken out of my circle of relations when I was a three-year-old child,” recalls Thistle (MA ’16). “When I went through the system and was taken in by my paternal grandparents in Brampton, I lost my Métis culture, that identity, and Michif language. That’s when my homelessness really began.”
Home is connection, not just buildings
After surviving more than a decade cycling through stages of homelessness, abuse, addiction and incarceration, Thistle, now a distinguished scholar and celebrated writer, is at the center of an important conversation about Indigenous homelessness in Canada. His remarkable 2019 memoir From the Ashes has been topping best-seller lists for months.
Indigenous people – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – are disproportionately affected by homelessness and Thistle says tackling this challenge requires re-thinking what it means to be “homeless.”
“It’s not just about ‘houselessness’,” Thistle says. “Historically, Indigenous peoples haven’t just lost their lands. They lose connection to family and community, and they get dislocated culturally, emotionally, spiritually from all the healthy relationships they would have.
“It’s also about a disconnection from what we term Indigenous worldviews. For instance, my people call it wahkootowin – helping each other in a good way. That’s the way communities governed and lived and had sovereignty where everything is interconnected and we must respect all things in existence. In the Anishinabek worldview, you are placed within your relations, within creation, with the animals, the land, with your family, with food, with your teachers, your stories, your dances. All those things were lost or disrupted through colonialism, and homelessness is often the end result.”
It’s these worldviews that are helping Thistle get through the COVID-19 pandemic, where self-isolation and physical distancing are reminiscent of his time in isolation awaiting trial. As he wrote in a recent Toronto Life article, wahkootowin or the “love thy neighbor” on steroids approach, can help heal broken relationships with our society and the environment. Thistle has even started a twice-weekly Facebook chat with Ian Campeau, Chatting With Homies, to share Indigenous knowledge with new audiences.
Thistle says the traditional understanding of “homelessness” as a lack of shelter overlooks the experiences of many Indigenous peoples. That’s why he wrote, in consultation with Indigenous peoples, the Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. “I believe in helping the person that I once was,” says Thistle. “That’s really what guides my work.”
COVID-19 exposes flaw in Indigenous housing
The definition outlines 12 dimensions of Indigenous homelessness. One dimension is historic displacement, such as the experience of Thistle’s Métis ancestors who were forced to live on road allowances. Another is cultural disintegration and still another is overcrowding homelessness which can lead to unsafe and unhealthy conditions, especially in a crisis.
“COVID-19 has exposed this flaw in urban and on-reserve Indigenous housing where, in some cases, there is double or triple the occupancy in a single-family dwelling,“ says Thistle. “It is hard to isolate when the housing is not designed for six to twelve people, let alone for them to isolate.”
We’re going to change the way that we think. We’re going to think like we’re Indigenous. It’s actually changing the way policy is being built for all Canadians. And that’s just beautiful.
For Thistle, understanding what Indigenous homelessness means is crucial for building policy to address the issues.
This understanding of broken social relations is also being applied to other fields of homelessness, says Thistle. For example, veterans experience disconnection from their loved ones because of traumatic experiences. Similarly, elderly people lose connection when friends and family pass away. Both processes can lead to homelessness.
“We’re going to change the way that we think. We’re going to think like we’re Indigenous. It’s actually changing the way policy is being built for all Canadians. And that’s just beautiful.”
Connect with Jesse Thistle @michifman
Banner illustration by Dan Page