Actress Michelle Thrush Helps Win Oil Company Concession for Indigenous Ecuadorians

Canadian Gemini award–winning Cree actress and self-proclaimed "artist in solidarity with Idle No More" Michelle Thrush is wielding her celebrity clout in defense of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador.

On April 17 she put her acting skills and environmental passion to use in Calgary, Alberta along with activist organizations including Idle No More, the Sierra Club and Amazon Watch, when she delivered a strong message to a group of oil executives and Ecuadorian government representatives in an oil bidding meeting at the Telus Convention Centre. Speaking on behalf of the Indigenous Peoples of south Ecuador called the Seven Nationalities, Thrush and the groups told the parties that the four million hectares of Amazon region land they were discussing was not for sale.

"It was all very clandestine, which I loved—very top secret," said Thrush, who was asked to crash the meeting only a couple of days beforehand.

The actress is no stranger to activism. Known for her roles in Blackstone, Arctic Air and other television and film works, Thrush has been involved with social justice issues since high school.

"I've been super involved in politics since way before Idle No More," she told Indian Country Today Media Network. "As I've built my name over the years I've always tried to use my profile to be a part of creating change."

In preparing for the protest, Thrush kept tradition at the forefront, making sure to smudge and ensure that she was grounded and protected for what was to come. The actress was given a character to play and a loose script. She disguised herself as a senior associate lawyer complete with a bogus business card to get in the doors of the high-profile meeting. The experience was nerve-wracking but empowering for Thrush.

After finding a seat she waited for a time that felt appropriate to stand up and speak. Thrush made her move following a talk by Ecuador's Minister of Hydrocarbons and a short film that she felt dishonestly portrayed the Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador as showing support for oil development.

"I could feel my heart starting to pump, and honest to God this could only be understood by a Native person, I just started to call the grandmothers in," she said later. "I just prayed, ‘I need you to be with me right now because I'm feeling intimidated, I'm in a room full of oil executives, senior associates and non-Native people, and I'm the only person here of color, and I'm really nervous.' Then I felt this empowering feeling come through me. I walked up and I did what I needed to do, and I ended it."

Thrush delivered an official Letter of Opposition to the meeting attendees and declared that the indigenous communities to be affected by oil exploration had not been consulted. Her speech lasted less than five minutes, but the interruption was felt by many soon after, not only in the room but also on an international level via several media outlets, including many in Ecuador.

Thrush said there was a moment when she felt like breaking down to cry, so strongly was the spirit of her southern brothers and sisters with her.

"The connection has always been there for me," the actress said. "I can remember hearing from elders back in the '90s, hearing the prophecies about when the condor meets the eagle, that's going to be a really powerful time for us, and I think this is what's going on right now with Idle No More. We need to really start reaching out to our southern relations and finding our commonalities—we are all indigenous people, from the top of the Inuit people right down to the tip of South America."

Amazon Watch Environmental and Human Rights Campaigner Adam Zuckerman said he was impressed with Thrush's actions.

"Having an indigenous person in Canada to be able to carry this out and speak to the struggle of the communities in the Amazon draws parallels from things her own community has gone through in regards to the environment oil exploration," he said.

Talisman Energy has officially pulled its bid, citing the contract was "too controversial" to enter into.

Overall, Zuckerman said, the protest had enough of an effect to make buyers think twice. Final bids will be made and submitted to the Ecuador government at the end of May, with contracts to commence in the fall. Amazon Watch and other organizations will continue to protest.

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