Ashley Burnham is a Canadian woman, coming from a youth of extreme poverty, now 25 years old, professionally trained tap, ballet and jazz dancer, a successful actress, director, model, university graduate, identified as one of Canada’s Top 20 under 30, recently married and is the first Canadian contestant to win the 2015 Mrs. Universe title.
Ashley Callingbull is a Cree First Nations actress who has a recurring role on the television series Blackstone which gives an unvarnished look at life life on and off the reservation. A survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse as a child, she credits her Cree culture for bringing focus and balance into her life, and now speaks as a role model to aboriginal youth. She uses her profile as an entertainer to draw attention to aboriginal issues and is also the 2015 Mrs. Universe, the first aboriginal contestant to win the title.
Ashley Burnham-Callingbull is all of those things. She does not have a split personality, but her accomplishments are certainly enough for two people.
She is academically accomplished, having graduated high school at age 16, Ashley has a Bachelor of Arts degree and graduated from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Television Program.
Mrs. Universe is not just a beauty pageant. Mrs. Universe contestants have to be married, of course, have her own career, and be an activist for a cause. Contestants are not judged on their evening wear, but on their activism and charitable work. The contest is intended as a boost to the contestants’ activism. Ashley explains, “A lot of First Nations people are supporting me because I am the first First Nations woman to win, but they’re also supporting the pageant because it doesn’t judge you on your looks. There is no swimsuit competition, it all judges on your charitable work and the work you do within communities.”
There is a talent portion to the competition, and for that she sang and performed a round dance with a hand drum while wearing a white buckskin jingle dress. She is not, as she says, “a pocahottie”, a derogatory term for things like the revealing “sexy indian” Halloween costumes and such that exploit the first nations culture. “I don’t wear headdresses; I don’t do any of that. That’s not me. I want to represent our culture properly, in the right way,”
The week-long competition featured interviews and discussions on the theme of domestic violence and its affects women and children. Ashley credits her childhood experiences of poverty and abuse as enabling her to speak personally and with authority on those issues. “This was the perfect pageant for me to be in, I’ve lived through it and can use it to help other people.”
And help other people she does. She has spoken about her childhood with youth at We Day events, delivered a TED Talk and spoke at Harvard University as the keynote speaker for an All Ivy Native Council. She also travels to hospitals and schools, speaking about her life and reaching out to others and engaging in motivational speaking and mentoring aboriginal youth.
Ashley describes how her Cree culture and the love of her mother and grandmother drew her out of the abuse she received as a child, and prevented her from going down a very different path. “I think my culture saved me. Fear had held me back for so long. I needed to find myself, and I did.”
Ashley Callingbull takes her activism very seriously and refuses “to be pretty and shut up” as Mrs. Universe. On her first day as the reigning Mrs. Universe, she took advantage of the media coverage of her win to loudly call for Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be ousted form office, and encouraged her fellow first nations brothers and sisters to get out and vote. She already has one unemployed Conservative under her belt. Sue MacDonell, a Conservative Party Director with a history of making hate-filled and disparaging comments about First Nations people (eg “If Indians want to eradicate racism, then assimilate. Ditch the Halloween costumes and adopt 20th Century dress, leave the reserves, … find unemployment, stop demanding money you haven’t earned, become educated and join our society”) resigned after being instructed to do so for posting on Facebook about Ashley’s call for Harper’s ouster, “Ewww … what a nasty piece of work this one is.” and “What a smug, entitled liberal pet she is. These are the monsters that they create.”
Ashley is a truly remarkable woman who continues to use the spotlight to talk about how Canada’s aboriginal women are highly disproportionate among Canada’s missing and murdered, and she shares that spotlight with other aboriginal issues such as housing, oil pipelines and poverty. “There is such a huge stereotype on First Nations people that we can’t succeed, we can’t make it big-time, but I did, I made history. Anyone can do that too, they just have to stop the fear from holding them back.”