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Lessons from a Clown

Indigenous actor uses the stage to face the pain of residential schools.

There is a 10-minute YouTube video with excerpts of Michelle Thrush’s one-woman play, Find Your Own Inner Elder. It has almost 1,800 views and 11 likes. Not the most viral video. There are also two comments, posted a year apart. Both comments say the same thing: She performed this show in my community.

Two young people saw the show in different cities, in different years, then went online to see it again. Thrush’s creation moved them, and they wanted the world to know. She blessed them; pronounced upon them a benediction with her story. Which, in the mystery, becomes their story. It was a blessing she received in many ways throughout her life, despite its many hardships.

The Backstory

Michelle Thrush is Cree, and has been a working actor for over three decades. She starred in the popular APTN and Showcase television series Blackstone, for which she won a Gemini Award and was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award. She has travelled the world, worked with Hollywood actors, walked the Red Carpet at Cannes, and always returned home to Calgary to share her story and her blessings with others. The story that touched those two young people who felt compelled to comment on her YouTube video. The benediction of a story transcends time and space. It is forever alive and present.

Thrush’s childhood story is of alcoholism and loss, of racism and confusion. As a young child growing up in Calgary, she knew what was happening in her family was not right. When the other school kids teased her for being aboriginal, and for having troubled parents, she felt embarrassed for being Cree.

Plains Indian Cultural Survival School

So for middle school, she moved to the Plains Indian Cultural Survival School, the first urban school in Canada run by and for Indigenous people. The school was a radical experiment that hoped to create a holistic and safe space for Native students. Indigenous culture was honoured. There were elders to learn from. The othering Thrush felt at the public school gave way to nurturing. And the shame she felt for her heritage gave way to pride.

Plains Indian Cultural Survival School opened in 1976 as a response to the legacy of Residential Schools in Canada. Indian and Metis arts and crafts were taught, along with history from an Indigenous perspective. There were language classes. Everything that had been taken away from Indigenous populations by the apartheid policies of separating children from their families, was returned at this school. “PICSS was one of the best things to happen to me,” says Thrush. “I personally know how important it is for Indigenous youth to go to a place where they feel affirmed.” PICSS closed in 2002 and the building was demolished earlier this decade. Many former students picked up pieces of the rubble as icons for the blessings the school had bestowed on them.

Challenges Facing Indigenous Actors

In Find Your Own Inner Elder, Thrush tells a story of a public school teacher who used a term insulting to Indigenous Canadians to spell the word “arithmetic.” That’s how common that racism was decades ago. PICSS was an antidote to that, and it fed Thrush a lot of the confidence and affirmation she lacked at home. She came out of high school with an interest in the performing arts, and also in becoming a social worker so she could work with aboriginal children.

“As a child, I couldn’t even fathom that I could be an actor,” she says. The award winning, Order of Canada recipient, actor and activist Gordon Tootoosistold her that if being a performance artist was in her heart, that is what she should pursue. Since then, life as an actor has brought her awards and recognition.

It wasn’t easy in the beginning. There were very few roles for an Indigenous performer. Then in the 1990s, she says, “it began to open up.” She had a recurring role in the CBC series North of 60. She was a lead in Blackstone starting in 2011. She achieved a level of fame few Indigenous actors manage. She travelled with one of her daughters to the Arctic with two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson for Greenpeace. But she never abandoned her own story.

Telling Her Own Tale

She created Find Your Own Inner Elder in 2009. “When I was growing up there were no words for the trauma felt by my parents and grandparents,” she says. “We didn’t understand intergenerational trauma. We didn’t have truth and reconciliation.” The play was intended to be performed in gyms and community halls. She wanted to reach as many people as she could.

During the course of the play she goes from being a child to a kookum, a grandmother. “This old woman comes alive and does a comedy set,” she says. “Indigenous people speak to their ancestors. This is part of our belief system. When I was a child, my parents were damaged. Nobody taught me how to pray. But somehow in a dream state these ancient voices would talk to me. They would guide me. I call them my grandmothers. They kept me sane as a child. I don’t know how, but I tapped into a spiritual source.”

The grandmother in the play is dynamic and energetic, full of humour. She is the inner elder who has walked with Michelle Thrush since childhood; the one the actor and storyteller now shares with the world. In 2017, Thrush was commissioned to write another play, Inner Elder. She worked with the renowned Canadian director Karen Hines, an authority on clowning. This play is designed for theatres and has toured across Canada.

“I am a strong Indigenous woman because of the challenges I grew up with,” says Thrush. “I told my mother that she did the best she could with the tools she had. Every challenge in my life has been a blessing.” Thrush has two teen daughters; the eldest has followed her mother as an actor, starring in her first movie The Saver. “I had better tools to work with than my mother,” Thrush says. “And I want my daughters to have better tools than me.”

Inner Elder is an expression of her accumulated blessings and the strengths she has gained over her lifetime. “I’m not writing this show to educate white people,” she says. “I don’t care if they don’t get it. But I do think they feel it emotionally. I am writing this play for Indigenous audiences, for them to connect with their kookum. There is no victimization in it.”

Michelle Thrush says being a social worker was “the first passion in my life.” She uses her art and her craft to “change the cycle.” She continues to work with Indigenous youth in the hope that “I can contribute something positive in their lives.”

And there are at least two young people who have left their comments online as proof she has indeed been a blessing.


  • Andrew Faiz

    Andrew has worked as a journalist for radio, newspapers, magazines, documentary film and TV news. He was Senior Editor at the Presbyterian Record for over a decade, is a playwright, and recently completed Burning Bush, a novel about a fictional Christian denomination. He lives in Toronto.

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