To Open The Sky
The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
The First Nations' First
On 29 August 2015, the final of the Mrs. Universe competition took place in Minsk, Belarus. History was made at this event: It was the first time a Canadian First Nation woman, or any Canadian woman, won the title.
That woman is Ashley Callingbull, 25. An actress, she is known to Canadians for her work on Blackstone (2011).
She more than meets the requisite qualifications for a beauty-pageant winner.
But do not get the wrong impression. This is no decorative but empty-headed bimbo who fills out her dress but barely manages to answer the M.C.'s question — and then provides only dull platitudes. There is a very sharp brain behind that beautiful face.
And that still doesn't capture the full measure of this young woman. Ashley Callingbull has a history and a political position. Both flow from her birth near Edmonton, Alberta, as a member of the Enoch Cree Nation.
First, let me deal with history and culture. She is proud of her First Nations heritage. That very pride informs her adamant refusal to bow to the stereotypes many whites carry about First Nations people (or Native Americans, as we call them south of the border.) As she puts it, "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.1 It made me genuine and unique from the other contestants."
Ashley Callingbull-Burnham's Accomplishments
Beauty pageants and other awards:
In the pageant, she wore a customized jingle dress in Canadian colors with maple leaves and danced the traditional jingle dance. For the talent portion, she sang a traditional round dance song while playing a hand drum. She also chose the work of a First Nations designer, and wore a white buckskin gown at the pageant. She regards it as part of her mission in life to acquaint those she calls "Europeans" with First Nations traditions. "They don't know that those things are sacred and I shared all of that with them and they were amazed and felt more educated on our culture and that's something I'm very proud of," she said on Saskatoon Morning.
Another facet of her mission is to inspire other young First Nations women. "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," Callingbull said. "Anyone can do that too, they just have to stop the fear from holding them back." She is well-placed to inspire them, not only because of her newfound fame, but because while growing up on Alberta's Enoch Cree reserve she taught in a performing arts program there, and since leaving has donated funding to it. Nola Wanuch, a band councillor on the Enoch Cree Nation, said, "She had a rapport with a lot of the young students, specifically the young ladies. She was one they found a trust in."
And now we come to politics. In Canada, as in the United States, aboriginal people have been marginalized. Most of them are forced to live apart from the mainstream society of their country, in communities that are disadvantaged in significant ways. True, some find their way into the wider world, may even find fame and fortune; but they are the exceptions. For the most part, aboriginal peoples are treated as second-class citizens.
Ashley Callingbull-Burnham (her married name) is determined to change that. To do so she must challenge Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Indeed, she has already made that challenge. There is an election coming in October, and the newly crowned Mrs. Universe has called for the defeat of the Harper government. She is motivated by political problems that have long faced her people: The Residential Schools program;3 poverty, poor health, and deficient education in FN communities; disproportionate violence against FN women.4
Mrs. Callingbull-Burnham has a Facebook account. Some have charged her there with being "too political." She responded with characteristic forthrightness.
"Did you really think I was going to just sit there and look pretty? Definitely not," she wrote. "I have a title, a platform and a voice to make change and bring awareness to First Nations issues here in Canada."
Beauty, brains, and bravery — and avowed commitment. That's a winning combination. That Mrs. Callingbull-Burnham has the first three is undeniable. Commitments are easy to announce, of course. But, given her history, I have no doubt her commitment is genuine. Nor do I doubt that she will make a difference. If I may riff off of a wonderful story by the late Theodore Sturgeon, Granny Won't Knit — and Ashley won't sit.
1 Headdresses are properly worn only by chiefs. But Ashley Callingbull has more generally offensive stereotypes in mind. There is a crass tendency in our commercial culture to dress comely young women in skimpy costumes in order to sell things — anything from events the women themselves are involved in to automobiles, beer, and other products. The derogatory term for a First Nations woman who allows this is "Pocahottie".
2 ACTRA (Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) is the union of more than 22,000 professional performers working in English-language recorded media in Canada including TV, film, radio and digital media.
3 Reportedly, at least 50,000 young native children were taken away by the RCMP to Residential Schools and were never seen or heard from again by their families.
4 Ashley Callingbull herself suffered domestic violence as a child when she was abused by her stepfather. Another indication of her courage is that she talks about this openly.