Thistle went from being homeless and then incarcerated. Now he’s a university professor, husband, dad and advocate for kindness. He shared his remarkable story at St. Joseph’s A Mental Health Morning.

A large contingent from ArcelorMittal Dofasco was on hand at the 10th annual A Mental Health Morning supporting mental health and addiction care at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton. 

Our company has been a proud presenting sponsor of this important event each year. After two years of virtual events, the breakfast was held in person Feb. 2 at Michelangelo’s Banquet Centre. Guests were also able to join online. 

The event’s keynote speaker was bestselling author and Hamilton resident Jesse Thistle, who shared his remarkable journey from homelessness, addiction and incarceration to award-winning writer, assistant professor at York University and proud husband and father. 

Nesha Gibson, Vice President People and Culture, brought greetings on behalf of our company before introducing Thistle.  

“I want to reinforce why this event is so important to us at ArcelorMittal Dofasco and why we continue to support St. Joseph’s and this cause. First, our longstanding belief is: Our product is steel. Our strength is people. That means our No. 1 priority is their safety, health and wellness. That’s both mind and body.” 

Nesha Gibson (Vice President People and Culture) brought greetings on behalf of ArcelorMittal Dofasco at A Mental Health Morning. Dofasco has been a presenting sponsor of the event for a decade.

Nesh Gibson, Vice President, People and Culture

“I want to reinforce why this event is so important to us at ArcelorMittal Dofasco and why we continue to support St. Joseph’s and this cause. First, our longstanding belief is: Our product is steel. Our strength is people. That means our No. 1 priority is their safety, health and wellness. That’s both mind and body.”

She added that St. Joseph’s is leading the way on mental health care, with the creation of the “beautiful and stigma-free space for healing and recovery” in the Margaret and Charles Juravinski Centre for Integrated Healthcare at the West 5th campus and by renewing its home for emergency mental health services at the Charlton campus. 

There are also world-class research and clinical teams at St. Joseph’s and a commitment to shine a light on mental health and inspire conversations, said Nesha. 

“Coming together for events like this one helps each one of us understand mental health, including substance use, and improve our own skills to cope, to heal and to be helpful to others, be it a friend, a colleague or a family member. We all have a responsibility to this,” Gibson said. 

That perfectly sums up Thistle’s message.  

He talked about a series of acts of kindness toward him by family, acquaintances and strangers that changed the way he looked at himself and the world. Most were not grand or elaborate, but these displays of empathy and decency convinced Thistle to get clean, finish high school, earn a history degree and to share his story. 

Thistle talked about his journey as one of “survivance,” which can mean both survival and endurance or survival and resistance. Thistle says he subscribes more to the latter, reflecting on the resistance to oppression shown by his mother’s Métis ancestors. 

After being separated from his mother and raised by his loving but strict paternal grandparents, Thistle started down the same path as his father, dropping out of school, taking drugs and committing crimes. 

For more than a decade, Thistle bounced in and out of shelters, detox centres and prisons. His record includes assault, theft and break and enters. He was desperate to feed his drug addiction and felt disconnected from society.  

Acts of kindness lead to recovery

But those acts of kindness – a Chinese market owner who didn’t press charges when Thistle shoplifted, a fellow inmate who convinced him to seek his high school diploma, a university professor working in a rehab centre who taught him he’d feel better about himself if he spoke respectfully and took care of his appearance ­– slowly reconnected him. 

He earned his high school diploma, improving his reading by poring over encyclopedias until the sentences made sense.  

He fell in love with his wife Lucie, who has been his greatest motivation to keep moving forward. 

He enrolled in a degree program at York University. “I was terrified that first day. All these young people with years of education and laptops, when I had a pen and paper. They didn’t earn their high school diplomas in jail or rehab.” 

In second year, Thistle wrote an essay about his family’s experience of colonialism that led to an invitation to be a research assistant with history professor Carolyn Podruchny, who is considered a leading scholar of Métis history.  

“She saw this middle-aged balding Indigenous man who was trying to make sense of his past and what happened to his people in the late 19th century.”  

Thistle says he came to understand the impact ancestral history and intergenerational trauma had on his immediate family and his own choices. “I saw my place in the long story of my people.” 

After earning a series of high-profile academic awards, Thistle told his story to a newspaper reporter. An offer for a book deal for his memoir followed.  

From the Ashes is the remarkable result. Thistle says he wrote it without anger or accusations. Instead, he focused on the empathy of others that led him to the life he now leads, married to Lucie, father to a baby girl named Rose, teaching the history of his people, studying for his doctorate and documenting his journey.  

“Each act of kindness taught me something about myself and others,” he said, urging his listeners to buy a struggling person a sandwich, learn their name or listen to their story.  

“Those are small acts of mental health outreach, resistance and reconciliation. It’s up to us to be kind.” 

A member of the ArcelorMittal Dofasco family earned a special award during A Mental Health Morning hosted by the St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation.

The honour recognizes her journey to overcome mental illness and her work to help others facing the same struggle. 

April Mansilla, who is married to Miguel Mansilla (Operations Coach, Cokemaking), won the Spirit of Hope award for individuals at the 10th annual event held Feb. 2 at Michelangelo’s Banquet Centre. 

“I remember thinking from my psych unit bed that I would be nothing but my illness,” she said upon receiving the award, before thanking her therapists and counsellors at St. Joseph’s and her family for helping her confront and manage her bipolar disorder. 

“Thank you all for giving me my voice back and for encouraging me to always show up no matter how hard the day. Most of all, thank you for giving me an abundance of hope so that I can give it to others.” 

After the event, for which our company was a presenting sponsor, she said it was “a full circle moment” to be on the stage.  

“I have been at this breakfast before, imagining what it would be like to share my story,” April said, with Miguel at her side. 

The couple has shared their struggle at our company’s health and wellness events several times. They say they feel a responsibility to let others who are struggling know they aren’t alone and that help can be found. 

“Dofasco was the first to offer us a platform to tell our story,” Miguel said. He said company resources helped him cope with the stress of being a caregiver to his wife and his children.  

Through therapy, medication and support, April has found a way forward. She is now a peer support worker in St. Joseph’s Mood Disorders Program. A professional artist, she also leads art therapy programs at St. Joseph’s and throughout the community. Her murals and art are found throughout the hospital’s West 5th campus. 

“It brings a sense of purpose to tell your story. Keeping it to yourself hurts other people’s recovery,” April said.