Hug a Non-Native Day in Calgary aims to break down barriers

Actor and activist Michelle Thrush decided to organize a Hug a Non-Native Day as a way to break down "invisible barriers" between natives and non-natives. "I didn’t like the feeling of non-native people thinking ‘It's us against them,'" said Thrush.

Actor and activist Michelle Thrush taking on divisions one embrace at a time

Calgary artist Deb Desmarais gives a stranger a hug last year during the inaugural Hug a Non-Native Day Feb. 6. A group led by Michelle Thrush was out in Calgary again Thursday for another round of hugs. (Mike Bee)

Most people think about going out for dinner or throwing a party on their birthday, but last year actor and activist Michelle Thrush wanted to do something out of the ordinary.

“I was just feeling very frustrated, coming from Alberta — Calgary — there seems to be a division between the cultures growing up here, between native and the non-native culture," said Thrush, who comes from a Cree background.

"And then with Idle No More it seemed even more pronounced." 

Thrush decided to organize a Hug a Non-Native Day on her birthday, as a way to break down those "invisible barriers." She put the word out on social media inviting friends to join her.

“I didn’t like the feeling of non-native people thinking, ‘Its us against them,’ because that wasn’t the issue, it was really questioning the government, and the omnibus bills and all of the things that were happening," recalled Thrush. 

Last year on Feb. 6, the Blackstone television show actor visited her daughter’s Grade 5 classroom to speak about protecting water. Then she got them to sign valentines with positive messages about the changes they wanted to see in the world. 

Connecting with strangers

Next she took to the streets of downtown Calgary, along with 20 others, to randomly walk up to non-aboriginal strangers, give them hugs and hand out Valentines. 

From left: Kimberly Weasel Fat, Idle No More Calgary organizer, Calgary artist Deb Desmarais, and Blackstone actor/activist Michelle Thrush gave out free hugs last year on a busy Calgary street corner. (Michelle Thursh)

And the reception was good.

“There was a couple people that didn’t feel comfortable, they kind of put their hands up and said, ‘That’s OK,' but there were so many people that were just like, ‘Thank-you’.... It's meant to create conversation of we are all human beings,” explained Thrush.

"I would hug and say, ‘Is there anything you want to ask?’ About the Idle No More movement, about water, about what we’re doing?'"

She met her goal of hugging 100 people in an hour.

Thrush recalled some of the  people she met while giving hugs downtown outside Calgary’s flagship store, The Bay.

“There were a couple business men who worked in the oil industry ... they were asking why Idle No More was concerned about water,” said Thrush, who used the opportunity to educate non-aboriginal people about Idle No More’s environmental objectives.

“The thing that really stood out for me — that’s their livelihood and there’s nothing against that. It was more about communicating with each other,” said Thrush.

The most heart-warming memory for Thrush was meeting a woman who said she hadn’t been hugged in a long time.

“So my hug with her was really special and I felt she really opened up to that. There was a beautiful dialogue that took place without words there and that to me — it speaks more than doing things that create more opposition,” said Thrush.

Hug-fest on again this year

There was a beautiful dialogue that took place without words there and that to me speaks more than doing things that create more opposition.- Michelle Thrush

Today Thrush and friends will return to downtown Calgary at noon when most office workers take their lunch breaks.

"Breaking down those invisible barriers and hugging the love outta every one of them," said Thrush on Facebook.

"C'mon down and join me Thursday (outside of the Bay on Eighth Ave.)  Wear something red, bring your best hugs and be prepared to have fun."

Thrush considers the second annual Hug a Non-Native Day as a birthday gift to herself.

“It was the best feeling ever [last year], it was like a high afterwards ... that was the most beautiful feeling for a birthday day.... I did it just to bring people together.”