The pageant world follows a certain set of conventions. After the announcement, the winner performs a pantomime of overawed humility. Her hand comes to her chest. Tears come to her eyes. She hugs the woman next to her and accepts the prize, incredulous and grateful. “Usually girls cry,” Ashley Callingbull explains, shrugging. “I’m not really a crier.”
When Callingbull won the Mrs. Universe pageant in Belarus last August, she flung her arms above her head in delight, fists clenched. She walked to centre stage and accepted the crown, punching the air in triumph. Callingbull is a 26-year-old from Enoch Cree Nation, just west of Edmonton. As the first Canadian and the first indigenous woman to win Mrs. Universe — a pageant for married women that judges contestants, in part, on their advocacy work — she knew she might get some media attention. That night, she packed her bags for her 4 a.m. flight home to Canada. “This is the perfect time to open my mouth,” she told her husband, Ryan Burnham, in the hotel room. “This is the perfect time to tell the truth.”
The next day, her title just a few hours old, she wrote a note on her Facebook wall. “I urge all First Nations people in Canada to vote in this upcoming election,” she said. “We are in desperate need of a new Prime Minister. Fight for your rights before they get taken away.” When commenters challenged her for being overtly political, she responded immediately with another post. “Did you really think I was going to just sit there and look pretty? Definitely not. I have a title, a platform and a voice to make change and bring awareness to First Nations issues here in Canada.”
This fall, while politicians travelled across Canada hawking their competing visions for the country, Callingbull went on a campaign of her own. She appeared in countless television interviews, criticizing the Harper government for its seeming indifference to the issue of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. She lent her voice to the Rock the Indigenous Vote campaign and showed up at rallies and on social media to urge First Nations groups (some of whom have a voter-turnout rate of around 40 percent) to take control of their political destiny. Overnight, the unknown Cree woman became a spokesperson for First Nations issues. Nearly 122,000 people like her Facebook page, and when she posts political statements, they’re liked and shared thousands of times. Canadian political parties took notice.
One day, during the heart of the election campaign, Callingbull’s cellphone rang. It was Justin Trudeau. In recent months, he had made plenty of promises: to launch an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, to implement all 94 recommendations on indigenous schools from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, to end drinking-water advisories in First Nations. “He told me about his ideas and plans, and I told him what I really thought,” she says. The vows from politicians sounded good, but where had they been before the election? Callingbull didn’t endorse Trudeau or anyone else. She just told him she would remember his promises.
On an afternoon in late October, a week before the election, Callingbull is still trying to make sense of her post-pageant life. The first day back from Belarus, she gave 23 interviews to international media, and she’s been on the move ever since — meeting with youth groups in Winnipeg, delivering a speech at an event in Edmonton to honour missing and murdered indigenous women, accepting a national role model award at a gala in Ottawa. She’s had to retain an assistant.
“It’s been insane,” she says, picking at the all-day breakfast in a downtown Toronto diner. Dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt and dangling beaded earrings with eagle’s feathers at their centre, Callingbull is as unabashedly forthright in person as she is in her public appearances. In her brief time in the spotlight, she has observed the world of politics from a slightly closer vantage, and she’s come away unimpressed. “Politics is just pageants in suits,” she says. “You’re being this ambassador, you’re telling people what they want to hear, you’re talking out of your ass.”
Callingbull has embraced her new role as a voice for indigenous issues, but it’s been a somewhat awkward fit — not just because she is an exuberant twentysomething but because, in her view, so many others have been raising these issues for years. “A lot of First Nations people talk about the same things I talk about, but no one cared to listen,” she says. “And now, because a pageant girl won a title, people say, ‘Oh my god, it’s crazy what she’s saying!’ ”
She knows the reason for the attention, of course: the apparent incongruity between who she is and what she looks like. “They don’t expect a pageant girl to say political things,” she says. Callingbull has exploited this failure of imagination, taking delight in busting open stereotypes, but at times, the need to explain herself gets wearying. “People make assumptions about me,” she says. “They look at me and they don’t think I’ve had the life I’ve had.”
That life was, for a long time, an extremely difficult one. As an infant, Callingbull lived with her mother and grandparents in Enoch Cree Nation. When Callingbull was five years old, her mother brought them to live with a boyfriend (“a charming fake type”) on another Alberta reserve that had long been plagued by violence and extreme poverty.
“Not too long after we got there, he started raping me,” Callingbull says. She says he became physically abusive with both her and her mother. The next six years of Callingbull’s childhood was a nightmare. At home, she was terrified and confused, too ashamed to tell her mother what was going on. Her mother worked at the band office in Enoch, but the family remained desperately poor. Callingbull remembers driving down the highway to a nearby town and enduring people’s stares and contempt while scrounging for empty bottles. The smell of the bottle depot, the odour of stale beer, was the very essence of a certain kind of shame. “This place is disgusting,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe I am too.”
In a childhood that was broadly horrific, the smaller indignities stood out: the day her Value Village shoes were stolen at school; the racism she and the other First Nations kids endured when they were bused to a nearby town and pelted with clumps of dirt and rocks by waiting students. At nine, Callingbull got tuberculosis — a disease that has been all but eradicated in most of Canada, but that persists on First Nations reserves.
One day, when Callingbull was 11, her mother told her to pack her things. “She just couldn’t take it anymore,” says Callingbull. While her mother’s boyfriend was away, they gathered their few possessions and piled them into a truck. The entire drive back to Enoch, Callingbull was shaking. When they got to her grandparents’ place — joining her younger sister, Mariah, who’d spent much of her life with them — Callingbull became hysterical and told her mother everything that had happened. “I explained the things he did.”
The next months were, if anything, harder than the months before. “I didn’t trust anyone,” Callingbull says. “I was destroyed.” She was sent to therapy, but she hated it, either lashing out or withdrawing. That she survived all this is, according to Callingbull, largely due to her grandparents. The two of them ran a sweat lodge in Enoch, helping people with physical ailments and personal problems. “They were like Jedis, just selfless,” she says. “Watching them, I wanted to be like them.”
Slowly, she began to thrive. When Callingbull started school in Enoch, she skipped two grades, jumping to grade 6. She finished high school at 16 and went to university in Edmonton, studying drama. She raised money for cancer, after her mother was diagnosed, and for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, in honour of her grandmother, who died in 2006 and whose name is tattooed on the inside of Callingbull’s right wrist.
Today, when Callingbull talks about those early years, it’s with an openness and matter-of-factness that feels hard-won. While she was still a teenager, just 15 or 16, she began speaking at shelters and with youth groups about her years of abuse. “It was difficult at first,” she says. But she soon found that it helped her, and helped other people too. “A lot of people hide in the dark about these things and it destroys them,” she says.
As a kid, Callingbull competed in pageants at Enoch — competitions where local kids gave speeches and were tested on their knowledge of Cree culture — and at the urging of friends and family, she returned to that world at 20. She was second runner-up in the 2010 Miss Universe Canada pageant, but the cutthroat sniping, the tiny meals and the humiliating swimsuit competitions quickly became unbearable, and she quit after a few years.
She was also in an increasingly serious relationship. In 2012, when Callingbull was 22, she moved to Six Nations, Ont., the largest reserve in Canada, to work for a charity called Dreamcatcher that supports First Nations youth. Her aim was to stay for a few months, then move to L.A. to pursue acting. Instead, she met Burnham, then a 22-year-old who seemed to know everyone on the reserve. Burnham owns a gas station and a sports store there; his father is part owner of Grand River Enterprises, a sizable tobacco company based in Six Nations.
Callingbull describes Burnham as an “old soul” — a serious person who, like her, doesn’t drink and seemed remarkably settled in his mid-20s. The two quickly became friends and then started dating. In February 2015, they married in the Bahamas, and she officially became Ashley Burnham.
A few months later, Callingbull’s mother came to her with a competition she’d just discovered. The Mrs. Universe pageant doesn’t have a swimsuit component, instead prioritizing advocacy and charity work. “She said, ‘It’s everything you stand for,’ ” Callingbull recalls. That year’s Mrs. Universe competition had a theme: child abuse and domestic violence.
It seemed like an ideal way to bring the work Callingbull had already been doing to a larger audience. “I had an agenda going into the competition,” she says. “You can win a title, but then what? What good are you if you don’t do something with it?”
This fall — in interviews and in speaking engagements, at rallies and powwows — Callingbull has returned over and over to the subject of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. In the midst of an election in which First Nations issues became, briefly, part of the mainstream political conversation, Callingbull chose to align herself with indigenous-led campaigns. In September, she spoke at the launch of Who Is She?, a First Nations–led inquiry initiated by the Chiefs of Ontario, who decided they couldn’t wait for a federal inquiry to start speaking with families, finding answers and confronting the violence that exists in and for First Nations communities. “She’s using her new title as her platform,” says Deputy Grand Chief Denise Stonefish of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, who helped launch Who Is She? “For a woman to step up and say, ‘Yes, this has happened to me,’ takes a lot of courage.”
According to an RCMP report, between 1980 and 2012, almost 1,200 indigenous women were killed or went missing. A 2015 United Nations report found that indigenous women are five times more likely to die violently than non-indigenous Canadians. Last fall, allegations emerged that police officers in Val-d’Or, Que., had forced First Nations women to perform sex acts, assaulted them, then driven them to the outskirts of the city, leaving the women to walk home in the cold. These horrific stories follow a 2013 Human Rights Watch report from British Columbia that found allegations of abuse and violence by the RCMP, including an accusation of rape, in rural B.C. communities.
For Callingbull, this treatment stems from a simple, discomforting truth: “These women in our country aren’t a priority,” she says. A missing indigenous woman is easily dismissed as yet another person from a troubled background. “That makes us a target,” says Callingbull. “People know that no one’s going to care if I take this woman.”
Today, even the words “missing and murdered indigenous women” have begun to feel rote — a too-familiar phrase that slides across the brain without finding purchase. For Callingbull, the violence is a lived reality. One of her mother’s cousins, Georgina Papin, went missing when Callingbull was a child. Years later, Papin’s remains were found on the property of pig farmer Robert Pickton, the notorious serial killer from Port Coquitlam, B.C. Callingbull’s Facebook feed is a stream of concern from her peers — articles about the latest indigenous woman found murdered, posts that express daily anger and fears.
By helping push the issue into a federal election campaign, and by holding politicians accountable for their promises, Callingbull wants to make these women visible — to turn an uncomfortable fact that most Canadians try to ignore into a visceral reality. “It’s scary to be a First Nations woman,” she says. “Violence starts to seem like a regular thing. And that’s the problem.”
In early November, a few weeks after the election, Callingbull was back at her home in Six Nations, relaxing with her husband and their two dogs. After growing up in poverty, Callingbull now lives in a sprawling home with an indoor swimming pool. “I never thought I would become anything or be in a nice house, have a great career,” she says. “It still surprises me.”
Callingbull watched the end of the Harper era with a cautious optimism. She was thrilled by the record number of First Nations voters, with some communities seeing turnout rise by up to 270 percent, and astonished by the appointment of Jody Wilson-Raybould, a First Nations woman, as minister of justice. “Hopefully this will lead to something bigger,” she says. “An inquiry will go into what’s going on, but we need more.” When Callingbull and her mother were being abused, there was no safe space they could turn to. “The government should be putting more money into cultural programs and shelters,” she says.
In late fall, after the chaos of election season, Callingbull was trying to figure out her own future. There would be trips to communities in Northern Quebec and Northern Ontario, where she would meet with kids and tell them her story. She was looking forward to returning to Winnipeg, the city with the largest First Nations population in the country, and spending more time with the girls in foster care who look at her — Mrs. Universe — and are amazed to hear that she had a life not unlike their own.
There are acting opportunities and chances to model, too, though Callingbull says that modelling has never been particularly appealing. “I don’t really like not being able to say anything,” she explains. “After a while you get tired of being quiet. You’re quiet for years. So why not speak out?”
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