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This Professor Used to Be a Homeless Addict


This Professor Used to Be a Homeless Addict

Think your life is rough? You’ve come through some hard stuff? Well, it’s probably got nothing on Jesse Thistle. Son of a three-faced junkie thief, Thistle went through the proverbial ringer before he got clean. Then he went through one more spin before it was finally over. But when it was over, he’d come a long way from being a homeless addict.

Training to Be an Addict

The best way to train for something is at the foot of a master. That goes for sports. That goes in business. And that goes for addiction. You might say it goes even better for addiction, since the tutoring also includes a strong physiological component.

Best though is if the master happens to be your father. He wants you to learn the in’s and out’s. In fact, he needs you to learn the in’s and out’s. And the son wants nothing more than to please the father.

And whether it’s begging on the streets or boosting out of department stores, you’ll do your best to do your best.

So went most of Jesse Thistle’s childhood. Oh, there was a stable couple-year run when he and his two brothers got to live with his mother. But his mother was Metis-Cree and in those days the indigenous had less than little rights to anything, even their own children. So after Jesse’s father took the kids away from their mother, they stayed away. And when Child Services then took the brothers away from their father, they were assigned to live with the white grandparents.

But not before a couple orphanages and foster homes. There’d also been the father’s earlier crash course in being a junkie thief. Needless to say, Jesse’s stint with the law-abiding grandparents didn’t last long. In fact, it lasted about as long as it takes for a bag of cocaine to fall out of a grandson’s pocket.

Thistle would have much better luck living on the streets. Thirteen years worth of it, in fact. Almost all of that luck bad.

Framed for Murder

After a decade or so, Thistle had pretty much resigned himself to a life on the streets. A couch here. A hotel room there. The odd doorway or bus bench. Maybe a park — or a parking lot. When you stay awake for three or four days straight it doesn’t much matter where you sleep. So long as it’s close to your source.

And Thistle knew all the sources. In fact, he knew them intimately. Who had the best meth or crack. Who opened early and stayed open late. And best of all, who he could tap for a little credit. Because a homeless addict is ever on the lookout for some kind of advantage. Heck, even 5 or 10 dollars is a bump up the economic ladder. So when a couple partying types offered Thistle a sweatshirt and a few bucks simply for picking up a pizza, he jumped at the chance.

Little did he know that very same sweatshirt was worn during the murder of a cab driver earlier that day. The guy had given it to Thistle in order to throw the cops off the trail. And to instead frame Jesse for murder.

So what to do? If Thistle called the cops he’d be considered a rat. If he didn’t, two murderers might get away. Murderers who tried to implicate him no less.

Thistle considered taking off, writes BBC ace Sarah McDermott. “Running away was my way of dealing with life,” says Jesse. But Thistle instead went to the police. The two men who’d tried to frame him were later jailed for murder.

Unfortunately word got out that Thistle was an informer. And Jesse became “a dead man walking.”

Old friends wanted nothing to do with him, writes McDermott. People would lure him places so that they could ambush him. Someone tried to knife him in an alley. And once Jesse was beaten so badly with a baseball bat he could barely walk.

“I was always on the run, always fearful for my life, always on high alert,” Thistle says. “They call it hyper-vigilance – I just had to survive and bounce from place to place.”

In despair, Jesse stole a large quantity of painkillers from a pharmacy and swallowed them all before he could think twice about it. This led to a spell in hospital, but no change in his behavior. Jesse was still Jesse.

Things went from worse to even more worse. One night Thistle fell three flights while trying to break into his brother’s apartment window. Oh, he landed on his feet. But, writes McDermott, his right heel was shattered, his right ankle joint destroyed and both his wrists were broken. Doctors couldn’t believe that Jesse hadn’t been killed. Neither could Jesse.

Infection set in. Crack dulled the pain. Then Jesse’s toes turned black. The nails started dropping off. So he sought help. Jesse remembers hearing something about amputation. He also remembers running. Hard. And fast. Then he remembers robbing a convenience store so he could be arrested. Then being too scared to get caught.

Jesse eventually turned himself in.

From Homeless Addict to Professor

Prison was a turning point for Jesse. He got clean. He got healthy. And he got back to learning again. He even got back in touch with his mother. And his maternal grandmother. The grandmother demanded a death-bed promise — “follow through with your education, go to university, go as far as you can.” Jesse complied.

Then Jesse became reacquainted with an old school mate. Lucie. She was solid. She was stable. And she saw something in Jesse. He moved in with her after rehab. Then Jesse began his schooling in earnest. At age 35.

His thing was history, Not just any history, mind you, But his own. And his peoples.’ The Metis-Cree. Jesse reached out to one of his aunts. He strengthened his relationship with Mom. Even took a trip back to Saskatchewan. And with the deep dive into his roots, came an even deeper dive into himself.

“All those memories came rushing back of who I was and who our people were, and it just filled me up in every good way,” Jesse said.

Soon Jesse’s research was winning awards, writes McDermott. He graduated as the top student in his faculty. Picked up two competitive doctoral scholarships. And he’s almost finished writing up his PhD. He’s also now an assistant professor teaching Indigenous history at York University. And an author. In fact, Thistle’s From the Ashes: My Story of Being Metis, Homeless, and Finding My Way Home (Simon and Schuster) became something of a sensation.


It’s a long, long way from being a homeless addict.

Healing Properties Salutes…

Healing Properties would like to salute Jesse Thistle for making the great 180. We’d also like to congratulate him on his achievements — personal, professional and professorial. It’s not every day one stumbles upon a story of a homeless addict becoming an author and professor. Then again, Jesse’s story isn’t simply an everyday sort of story. Perhaps with his terrific example though, it one day will be. We’d also like to thank the BBC’s Sarah McDermott, whose inspiring story begat this report. The world could use a good few more examples like the one she sets too.

What about you? Are you perhaps seeking an example of your own? They’re out there you know. In fact, they’re all over the place. And they’re ready, willing and eager to lend a helping hand. We know. We’ve got a few working and living right here. And if you give us a call, we’ll put you right in touch. No foolin.’

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons with great gratitude.)

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