Jesse Thistle

Study program:
Current affiliation:
York University

Jesse Thistle (history, York University) is studying the lives of Metis people living on road allowances – makeshift communities built on Crown land along roads and railways on the Canadian Prairies in the 20th century.

Doctoral research

Indigence, Invisibility, and Indifference: Metis Life in Road Allowance Communities on the Canadian Prairies

When Canada built railways and roads in the prairies they allotted ten feet on either side so workers could perform maintenance. These ribbons of Crown land were often left unused.

This seems an unlikely stage for a dramatic story in Metis history, but here Metis families found refuge and built communities, known as road allowance settlements, after they lost their land and sovereignty in the late 19th century. Dispossessed, Metis illegally squatted in tents, constructed shacks, and planted gardens on road allowances in the 20th century. It is ironic that Metis found shelter on Crown land even though the Crown orchestrated their dispossession after the 1885 Resistance. Road allowance life was marked by poverty, marginalization, government indifference, and worst of all, invisibility.

Until now, Metis scholarship has concentrated on identity, ethnogenesis, Louis Riel, or the Resistances; little addresses road allowance history. Jesse’s PhD thesis will trace the history of road allowances after 1885 across the Prairies.

Jesse Thistle is a road allowance Metis from Saskatchewan. His journey from homeless addict to successful university student is unusual among graduate students, but his path has shaped the way he approaches homeless studies, Indigenous history, criminology, social work, and addiction studies. His distinct perspectives were further developed as he participated in a wide range of Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research projects as a research assistant and researcher.

While working as a field researcher for Dr. Carolyn Podruchny on the SSHRC project “Tracing Metis History through Archives, Artefacts, Oral Histories, and Landscapes: Bison Brigades, Farming Families, and Road Allowance People,” Jesse and Carolyn noticed a vein of unaddressed historic trauma in their road allowance Metis informants. The intergenerational trauma Jesse wrote about linked unresolved battle trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder, to the descendants of Metis veterans who fought during the 1885 Resistance at Batoche, Saskatchewan. Jesse’s research in intergenerational trauma has already begun a process of healing within Saskatchewan Metis and Cree.

In 2012-2014, Jesse worked with Dr. Sarah Flicker on the “Taking Action for Youth II: Art and Aboriginal Youth Leadership for HIV Prevention” project, which educated Indigenous youth about the risks of HIV with focus on the AIDS epidemic that is happening in First Nation reserves. The CIHR project taught youth HIV/AIDS risk strategies, health awareness techniques, and elder re-education processes.

Jesse sits as the national representative for Indigenous homelessness in Canada at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Here, Jesse uses his lived experience as a former homeless addict to bridge policy and practice, academia and the streets, in working with and researching homeless Canadians, especially Indigenous people. He has worked as an interviewer and ghost writer for many homeless consumer survivors, encouraging them to tell their stories and creating ways for researchers to hear homeless voices.

Jesse has published in numerous academic journals, magazines, and books, and has worked on a few short documentaries. The focus of his research and writings is centered on his lived experiences, offering insight into Indigenous homelessness, history, and intergenerational trauma, crime and prison complexes, social work, and addiction studies.

  • January 25, 2018
    Jesse Thistle, a 2016 Trudeau scholar, has become the youngest member of the Board of Directors of Raising the Roof. Launched in 1996 by members of the Canadian Non-Profit Housing Foundation, Raising the Roof provides national leadership on long-term solutions to homelessness. “It's a pretty big deal for a student, at least to me who works in the housing sector,” said Thistle.