His father, an indigenous Canadian from the Algonquin tribe, in trouble with the law, ran away from home and met up with another indigenous Canadian from the Métis-Cree tradition with whom he had three sons, Jesse being the youngest. Sonny, the father, was soon in trouble again and his wife ran away with the children when they were still small. He caught up with her and took the children back but neglected them. They ended up in ‘white’ homes, among people, who in the 1960s, despised and tried to scrub out the indigenous culture.
Jesse ended up on drugs and living wild. It is a dreadful story but slowly his grandmother and then his mother and finally a girl, Lucie, came into his life. He began to see another way was possible and, when he realised (it had been hidden from him) his mother was a Métis-Cree, he researched her history, and so his own. He found they were a noble tribe who fought for their land and their freedom against the Canadian settlers in the 1880s. He put himself to school and learnt to read and do maths. He shone and was offered a post at York University in Toronto where he is now working on his PhD.
It is a story of rejection, destitution and redemption. Despite the pain of it all it is hard not to rejoice once again at the sheer resilience people have and their ability to survive unspeakable trauma. After all, what are we here for but to fight these battles and win? Shakespeare said famously, ‘all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.’ True, but all the world’s also a workshop, where men and woman mould their destinies by their decisions. And we can rejoice in the writers who bring us these stories. They tell us of the plague we are living through. They tell us Trump and Biden and climate change and North Korea. But on the same page they tell us of Jesse Thistle and his triumph over the snares life laid for him.
Jesse’s new-found life did not end with himself. It drove him to compassion for his fellow Canadians who endured similar histories. He wrote and spoke on ‘homelessness’ as something that goes well beyond not having a roof over your head. A roof is one thing but kinship, land, culture, language and spirituality were also wrenched from the indigenous people and made them ‘homeless’. Jesse spreads his compassion to reach out to veterans returning from war and the elderly unable to live with their children. Kinship is a key value: it extends to visiting, hospitality and relationships. It makes you who you are. Without it you are lost as he was for ten years or more as he drifted from dead end to dead end. All of this could be written about Africa.
When an evil spirit shouted at Jesus, ‘I know who you are’, it was speaking the truth. But Jesus told it, ‘Be quiet!’ There was no way the people in that synagogue could understand then. It would take time. They thought he could solve all their problems at a stroke. But life is not like that. Jesus knew the struggle with evil would be a long haul – for individuals – and for the world. We are still at it all these centuries later. Each one and all of us together have to engage in that struggle. There are setbacks but there are also victories. Jesse Thistle’s story one of those victories; a human triumph forged in the workshop of life.