Changemakers to watch: Jesse Thistle

Homelessness. It’s not simply an issue of not having a place to live. It’s complex, interconnected with other issues like mental health and addiction that combine to trap people in an endless cycle. People experiencing homelessness become disconnected, isolated and left on the fringes of our community. But, according to Jesse Thistle, this week’s Changemaker, understanding homelessness—particularly for Indigenous people—gets us all one step closer to finding a way to tackle it that goes beyond a hot meal and a place to sleep.

WHO: When it comes to understanding Indigenous homelessness, Jesse is more connected to his work than most. “For 10 years I experienced episodic homelessness,” says Jesse, who is Metis-Cree. “I was struggling with addiction and was in and out of jail. I started to notice that there were a lot of people like me in prison, on the streets and in shelters.” In fact, in Toronto alone, approximately 15 per cent of all homeless individuals are Indigenous, yet they make up less than 1 per cent of the city’s population. After overcoming addiction, and with sheer will, determination, and tons of support from his mentor, Carolyn Podruchny, and wife, Lucie, Jesse made it his life’s mission to study the issue in an effort to use his experience to help others. He’s become a top Canadian academic and has received a slew of awards for his work including being named a Trudeau and Vanier Scholar. In 2016, the PhD student became the National Representative for Indigenous Homelessness for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH).

WHY: Jesse is helping to literally “write the definition” of Indigenous homelessness for the COH. Plus, through scholarly work, advocacy and storytelling, he’s working to help all Canadians better understand the issue and collectively move us closer to finding long-term solutions. “Indigenous homelessness really isn’t about not having a place to live—it’s about a loss of relationships,” he says. “If people don’t have good relationships, they become disconnected from society. Growing up, I didn’t have those supports and it led to my homelessness.” Jesse’s lived experience, academic insight and passion to help others has not only made him one of the leading experts on how social issues like homelessness stem from historical trauma—it’s made him one of Canada’s most impactful voices of Indigenous advocacy. “When I look at the person that I once was—an addict, criminal, homeless, without an identity—I can’t help but want to help others out of that position.”

WHAT’S NEXT: You’ll be seeing a lot of Jesse in 2017. Just a few weeks ago, he was featured in a CBC Radio interview exploring his ancestry, as well as his current work studying 20th century road allowance communities—makeshift Metis settlements built along roads and railways in northern Saskatchewan. In October, he’s hoping to release the definition of Indigenous homelessness at the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness Conference, and will also be featured in a TVO special that offers an in-depth look into his Metis-Cree family history.

GOOD ADVICE: 

3 women who inspire us

It’s International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we put together a list of three women who inspire us. These remarkable individuals live right here in Toronto and York Region—changing lives and making our community a better place to live each and every day.

JOSHNA MAHARAJ: Joshna’s appetite for community change is insatiable. As a busy chef with big ideas, the South African native has demonstrated a tremendous passion for turning her culinary interests into community activism. After graduating from McMaster University, Joshna spent time living in India before returning to Toronto to pursue a career in the food industry. Joshna believes passionately that food “is a crucial piece of community building and rejuvenation.” She began her culinary career at The Stop Community Food Centre and also volunteered at FoodShare, a United Way-supported agency, where she helped develop a student nutrition program. At the Scarborough Hospital, for example, she worked tirelessly to overhaul the patient menu to include healthier, more culturally-appropriate options—the first project of its kind in Ontario. These days she’s busy working on her vision to bring large-scale change to the healthcare, rehabilitation and education sectors so that people can access fresh, local food when they visit places like hospitals and universities. “Food is such a perfect common denominator,” says Joshna. “It nourishes our bodies, but it also nourishes our spirit. There is a connection and a conviviality that comes from gathering in a kitchen, community garden or at a table. These are things that really give people a sense of belonging.” We love Joshna’s passion for her work and her tireless efforts to bring people together around food. We can’t wait to see what she cooks up next!

CHEYANNE RATNAM: At just 14, Cheyanne experienced hidden homelessness, couch-surfing with friends after she was forced to leave home because of family conflict and abuse. Cheyanne, who is Sri Lankan, was eventually placed into the care of the Children’s Aid Society where she remained during high school, yet managed to excel. Despite struggling with homelessness and a number of other barriers—including mental health issues like depression—Cheyanne was determined to build a better life for herself—and others just like her. Today, she’s thriving, after graduating from university and pursuing a busy career in the social services sector where she advocates on behalf of homeless newcomer youth and young people in and out of the child welfare and adoption system. One of her proudest accomplishments? In 2014, she co-founded What’s the Map—an advocacy and research group that has started a cross-sectoral conversation on how to remove barriers and better meet the needs of newcomer homeless youth. Cheyanne is also a public speaker for the Children’s Aid Foundation and a coordinator at Ryerson University for an education symposium for youth in care. And despite a busy schedule, she still finds time to mentor young people experiencing homelessness and other barriers. We’re inspired by Cheyanne’s remarkable resiliency and passion to help young people. And we’re not the only ones! Last year, her alma mater, York University, recognized her with a prestigious Bryden Award that celebrates remarkable contributions to the university community and beyond. “I hope to send a message to young people who are facing barriers that they are not alone and that it’s ‘OK to not be OK’. I want them to know that we’re here to help. The present circumstances should not define who you are or who you’ll become.”

SUSAN MCISAAC: We may be a little biased, but we think our recently-retired President and CEO, Susan McIsaac, is an extraordinarily inspiring individual who has dedicated her life’s work to championing social justice. During her 18 years at United Way (six years at the helm), Susan was a key architect of United Way’s transformation from trusted fundraiser to community mobilizer and catalyst for impact. She’s an inspiring example of a bold and compassionate leader who cares deeply about making a difference in the lives of people and families across our region. “We have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to make sure the kind of disenfranchisement that has cracked the foundation of other places doesn’t jeopardize our home,” explains Susan. “To make that happen, we need to re-commit ourselves to ensuring that anyone and everyone who works hard can get ahead.” It’s this very sense of commitment that continues to reverberate throughout the community services sector and beyond. So much so, in fact, that just last month, Susan was awarded the TRBOT’s Toronto Region Builder Award for her significant contribution to improving communities, and in 2014 was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by WXN.