How A Former Homeless Drug Addict Became A Professor At Toronto's York University

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How A Former Homeless Drug Addict Became A Professor At Toronto's York University

Jesse Thistle spent over 10 years on the streets and in jail but he remarkably turned his life around and is now an Assistant Professor of Indigenous history at Toronto's York University.

Jesse's grandparents had kicked him out the family home at age 19 when his drug use became out of hand. Originally he had grown up with his parents Sonny and Blanche. Sonny was of European origin and Blanche was of native origin, but growing up, Jesse's life was far from easy. Sonny drank heavily, used heroin and was often in trouble with the law. While Jesse and his two brothers were all under 6 years old, social-services removed them from the home, and despite Blanche being perfectly capable of looking after them, they were placed in the custody of Sonny's mother and father, Jesse's grandparents.

Canadian authorities were commonly using such methods at the time, whereby indigenous children were taken out of indigenous communities and placed in the care of white-families where it was felt that they would be better taken care of. Known as the 'Sixties-Scoop', this practice lasted for decades and Jesse and his brothers grew up knowing almost nothing of their indigenous background.

Jesse explained:

"I assume Child Services never called my mom because back then Indigenous women were thought of as unclean, unfit and derelict of their positions as mothers. When Indigenous kids came across Child Services' desks, their natural inclination was to put them in white homes because white people were seen as prosperous and responsible. It was called the Sixties Scoop - thousands and thousands of Indigenous kids were taken that way - it was endemic."

Jesse was bullied at school for his ethnicity. He had poor grades and was even beaten up by fellow students. Eventually, he would tell people he was Italian to avoid the discrimination brought against him by his classmates and peers. Soon he joined a gang and fell into a life of petty crime and drug addiction, taking crack cocaine and methamphetamine.

His life became so chaotic that he was almost framed for a murder of a taxi driver he never committed. So desperate for help and to escape the life he was leading, Jesse robbed a drug-store and turned himself in. It was then that his life began to turn around. In solitary confinement, he withdrew from the drugs he had been taking for so many years.

In the prison school and prison library, he began teaching himself basic things like how to read, write and do basic mathematics. After prison, he continued to expand his educational progress with extreme vigour. He said:

"I'd stay up late every night looking over encyclopaedias and my grades started topping the charts. I took etiquette courses to re-teach me how to eat at a table and take care of my hygiene - all the things that I'd forgotten because I'd been drifting around so long. I felt good about myself for the first time in many, many years."

Aged 35, he began a history degree at Toronto's York University, but it was when he started learning about the indigenous history and culture he had been separated for so long that he really began to excel. Jesse said that when one lecturer sent him a link to a genealogy website, it hit home.

"She sent me her link to ancestry.com, and I saw that I came from a long line of chiefs, political leaders and resistance fighters, and that filled me with such pride that it fired me up to want to know more and more. I knew that the key back to myself was through this assignment - I poured my heart into it."

His work on his indigenous history assignments got him a place as an assistant researcher. After completing his degree, he obtained a position as a lecturer and later as an Assistant Professor.

Jesse now states that he is thankful that he made his way in the world and managed to overcome both drug addiction and poverty. He is now reconciled with his mother, is married, and continues his teaching in indigenous history, hoping to encourage those from similar backgrounds to break free from the cycle of deprivation that blights so many indigenous communities.

h/t: BBC

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Thinking Humanity: How A Former Homeless Drug Addict Became A Professor At Toronto's York University
How A Former Homeless Drug Addict Became A Professor At Toronto's York University
Jesse Thistle spent over 10 years on the streets and time in jail but remarkably he turned his life around and is now an assistant professor of Indige
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