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Ashley Callingbull is no textbook beauty queen. She may wear her crown better than most, but her greatest accomplishments extend far beyond the pageant stage. In her short time as Mrs. Universe, she has challenged the Canadian parliament, rocked the First Nations vote, and inspired scores of Canadian women to live fearlessly. By the looks of it, she isn’t planning to rest on her laurels any time soon.  

By Valérie Silva

 

You’ve positioned yourself as a nonconforming beauty queen who refuses to “be pretty and shut up.” Did you enrol in the Mrs. Universe pageant with the idea that it would give you a stronger political voice?I wanted to join Mrs. Universe because it was so different from any other pageant I’ve competed in. They only judge you on your charitable work and your work for the platform, which was domestic violence and reflection on children. But, I did have an agenda going into this; I am not going to deny that! I discussed with family members what I could do with this title if I did win, what changes I could make, and what type of voice I could have for First Nations people. When I won, I thought what perfect timing. I think it was the second day I called out our Prime Minister. So, yeah, I had an agenda [laughs].

Pageants are often criticized for championing unrealistic standards of beauty. However, Mrs. Universe uniquely values social engagement over physical appearance. Was this an important distinction for you? I actually quit “Miss” pageants in 2013. They take so much out of you, and you are always trying to perfect society’s idea of what is beautiful and not your own idea. It made me sick to my stomach that people live up to these expectations. When my mom mentioned this pageant to me she said, “There is no swimsuit. There is no judging you on stage.” I didn’t believe her because I’ve never heard of a pageant that was like that before. I was really surprised when I got there. You wouldn’t walk into the room and think, “Oh my god. Supermodels!” You would see mothers, lawyers, doctors, and past politicians. These are the types of women that were there: really strong women, women that are as outspoken as I am. We were all similar on that level, but we all looked completely different. I remember the director of the pageant saying, “The reason we don’t have swimsuits is because no one needs to judge you on that. That’s not who you are.”

You’ve been vocal about your difficult childhood—a time during which you were bullied by classmates, sexually and physically abused, and lived below the poverty line. Can you tell us a bit about that? Did these traumatic experiences propel you towards activism? It started when I was 5 years old. My mom and I went to go live with her boyfriend. He was charming. He made a lot of promises to us. He appeared to be someone he wasn’t. That is when I starting being physically and sexually abused by him. It happened for years and stopped when I was around 10 years old. I remember any money that my mom had would be taken away. So, we would basically go pick bottles and bring them to the bottle depot. I remember going into the bottle depot, and I remember the smell. It smelled so disgusting and that’s how I used to feel about myself, because I would rely on that place to live. I relied on that place to eat. I remember nights when we would be counting how many pierogies I could eat. Maybe three pierogies, or two, or sometimes we wouldn’t even eat at all.

That messed me up emotionally. It took a long time to get over that. I see that a lot of people are really afraid to speak up about the truth. The first thing I did was share my story. It shows how strong and resilient I am. I shared how I overcame it as well. I basically had nothing, and I worked very hard everyday for everything I have now. All these experiences led me towards everything I am doing now.

These experiences undoubtedly weighed heavily on your self-esteem as a child. But, anyone who has seen you in recent years can see that you’ve managed to find strength in hardship. Can you comment on your evolution? I remember after we finally escaped, we had to go to court. I remember them telling me that I needed to see therapists. Therapy never worked for me because I would always be crying and yelling at them saying, “Tell me how to feel good about myself! Tell me how to be happy! Tell me how to fix myself!” And, they wouldn’t; they are just there to listen. 

My grandparents are very spiritual. They are a medicine man and a medicine woman and that’s what they do—they help people. They are very culturally in tune. So, I thought, “My help is right here at home. This is how I am going to get stronger. I want to be like them. I want to be able to help people.” My grandmother raised over 26 foster children. They gave up their lives just to help other people. They suffered to help other people. I want to be able to do that. They are the ones who taught me how to be humble and thankful for everything I have and for the fact that I am alive after everything. My mom’s boyfriend could have killed us many times. There were some really rough situations that we dealt with while we were there. My grandparents taught that helping other people heals you. Even now, I am still on a healing journey. You can’t just get over something like that instantly. My culture taught me that I needed to have a clean mind, body, and spirit and to stay away from drugs and alcohol because our spirit is connected to our body. So, I did stay away. I remember kids in my school would be drinking. I saw their lives just dwindling away, and I thought, “I don’t want to be like that anymore. I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to pick bottles to eat. I don’t want to have to do all these things.” So, I live my life with a lot of positivity. My culture saved me. If I didn’t have my culture, I probably would have destroyed myself.

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You’ve done charity work since the age of 14. What causes have you dedicated your time to? Are their any other causes that you would like to contribute to in the future? I started off with the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation when I was 14 because that’s where my sister was cared for before she passed away. After that I started working for the Lung Association and the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation because I had tuberculosis when I was 9, and my grandmother passed away due to pulmonary fibrosis. I also worked for SOS Children’s Villages, Variety Children’s Charity, and the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation. I should have written down a list here! There are so many different organizations I’ve worked for; it’s kind of crazy. Last night I got adopted into this family support service here in Six Nations. It’s called Ganohkwasra. I think support centres are amazing. I wish there was stuff like that for my mom and me back in the day. 

You’ve spoken out against the Conservative Party and its inaction with regards to indigenous issues, especially the lack of a national inquiry for missing and murdered indigenous women. Is it too far of a stretch to say that the government is in some way complicit in the continued occurrence of such crimes against indigenous women? The fact that our previous Prime Minister said that these missing women weren’t high on his radar and that there was no need for an inquiry shows how little he thought of our people. Showing that we weren’t a priority in our own country made us more of a target. If someone of a different background is missing, you’ll see him or her in the media instantly. If it’s a native woman, there is nothing. And that’s because the government said it is not as important. So, yes, I think the government played a big role in that. It made us more of a prime target for people who want to take our sisters.

Many Canadians like to believe that they live in one of the safest, most tolerant countries in the world. However, First Nations history in Canada tells quite a different story. What kinds of problems facing First Nations communities in Canada aren’t getting the attention they deserve? I think the residential schools should be taught—how the children were taken from their homes, stripped of their identities, their language, and their culture. The fact that a lot of people in Canada don’t even know that happened to First Nations people is so sad because that changed history in our country and that changed the generations to follow. A lot of First Nations people don’t even know their language because of what happened to our grandparents and parents. There was so much abuse afterwards because a lot of these people—even my grandparents who were residential school survivors—were abused so badly. A lot of people were not the same people when they came out. So, they tried to numb the pain with alcohol or drugs, or they took the abuse home with them. My abuser was abused by his parents, who were in residential school, and then it went on to me. A lot of these things go on through the generations and that’s a huge problem. Drugs and alcohol are a huge problem in First Nations communities and a lot of it has to do with the residential schools. There is a lot of poverty. I lived in poverty. A lot of people don’t even realize that there are First Nations communities in Canada that are living in third world poverty. There are people living in little shacks with only green water or brown water. Water is a huge issue. First Nations communities are relying on green water to live. 

Then there’s the foster care system. A lot of people consider that to be the new residential school. There is a lot of secrecy there, a lot of bad things happening. For example, people can take your kids away from you without any papers. There are so many people that it’s happening to. A lot of it is a money-making thing. Some of them could be good foster parents but for a lot of them it’s to make money off these children. It’s not to give them a good home. I think a lot of these children should be put with other First Nations people because they lose themselves. They lose their culture. They are being stripped away from the reserve, but it’s all they know, so that’s scary as hell. There is a huge suicide rate for First Nations people, which is horrible. It’s a travesty.

 

I think the government needs to implement a lot of programs throughout First Nations communities: cultural programs, healing programs, and art programs, everything they possibly can. Even with the inquiry it will only do so much. What is going to help these people is implementing programs that will help them find themselves. A lot of communities don’t have anything like that. A lot of communities don’t have shelters or any cultural programs whatsoever. Here in Six Nations they have so much. I’ve never even seen that before. My reserve does not have anything like that.  There are a lot of reserves that are advanced, but there are a lot that are really struggling. There are a lot of problems that are not being told. First Nations problems are always put on the back burner. It’s sad because we are the first people of this country and no one really knows what we are continuing to deal with.

First Nations women, like recently sworn in Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, singer Tanya Tagaq, and yourself, are making waves in Canada’s cultural, political, and social landscape. Would you agree that there is something bittersweet about Canada only having these “firsts” way into the 21st century It was a long time coming. It should have happened sooner, but I am glad people are listening now. When I won, people didn’t expect a pageant girl to be political in any way. We are told to be neutral; we are told to not have an opinion. But, Mrs. Universe is so supportive of me being outspoken. That’s what they stand for; they stand for strong women. People did not expect a pageant girl to call out the Canadian government or the Prime Minister, so that shocked people. But it’s sad to think that’s what it took—for me to win a beauty pageant—for them to listen. It’s sad because I’ve been talking about these issues for a long time, but the media only listens to people of importance that are in the public eye. It’s been too long of a wait.

Cultural appropriation has been a hot topic these days. Some argue that we are all just being “too sensitive,” but others insist that there is something seriously wrong with perpetuating stereotypes of a marginalized culture or community that is actively trying to fight misrepresentation. What’s your view If children want to dress up as Disney characters, that’s fine because they don’t know any better. But it’s their parents’ job to let them know when they grow up that it’s not okay to wear a headdress or anything like that because that’s our culture being misrepresented. I don’t like to get angry with people. I don’t like to yell at people. I like to educate them on my culture: the sacredness of the headdress, how sacred our culture is, and all the things our people have been through. I like to educate them in a kind way because that’s the only way that they’ll listen. With cultural appropriation it’s all about educating people because people just don’t know. People don’t take the time to know. That’s something our people have to do on their own. We have to educate them. 

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You are an activist, a beauty queen, a model, and an actress. Are there any other roles that you wish to someday explore? I am already so busy as it is! It would tire me out [laughs]. Many people are trying to get me into politics. I have people from many different educational institutions trying to get me into their programs because they are trying to propel me towards politics. I am kind of thinking about it. You never know! Maybe, I’ll just surprise everyone. I think I would be pretty kickass. I stand for a lot, and I can handle a lot. With this whole election thing, people were criticizing me like crazy, especially a lot of conservatives and a lot of white supremacists. I remember saying, “Do you honestly think I can’t handle criticism? I was in beauty pageants. That’s the most criticism you can face.” When I was telling people about politics, I was saying, “Politics are like pageants in suits.” 

Do you have advice for First Nations girls and women wanting to join the fight for better equity, representation, and access for their communities? They’ll have to be fearless. I created a quote for myself: “to love and live fearlessly.” When I say that, I mean to love and appreciate myself for who I am and for the way I was created. To not let fear stop me from achieving what I want to achieve. That’s how I live my life. If women could live their lives like that they could achieve anything. We need more female representation around the world. We need equality.

 
Photography Chris Nicholls. Fashion Editor Randy Smith. Creative Direction Sylvain Blais.  Hair & Makeup  Sabrina Rinaldi at P1M.

 

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