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"People think I'm too political on my first day as Mrs. Universe," tweeted Ashley Callingbull-Burham after her win at the end of August. "Did you think I was going to sit there and look pretty."
And with that, a role model was born. Because no, this 25-year-old dynamo from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation didn't sit there and look pretty.
'People think I'm too political on my first day as Mrs. Universe. Did you think I was going to sit there and look pretty?'‐ a tweet by Ashley Callingbull-Burnham after her win
She went on national TV and said the Harper government treats indigenous people like terrorists. She's fed up with seeing First Nations issues be relegated to the back burner. She wants to do something about it. She's refusing to be silent.
One month in, and the "badass beauty queen" -- as minted by Flare magazine -- has already made good on her promise to use her new platform to give voice to First Nations issues. She's been maintaining a packed schedule, speaking at events across the country, trying to galvanize indigenous youth into going to the polls Oct. 19.
Callingbull-Burnham was in Winnipeg Friday to do just that, delivering a keynote address to about 60 people at the University of Manitoba's Migizii Agamik Indigenous Student Centre as part of an event organized by the Manitoba chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students. Other speakers included grand chiefs Sheila North Wilson and Derek Nepinak.
The urgency in her speech -- which earned a standing O -- was as inspiring as it was chilling. Callingbull-Burnham is a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, which began at the hands of her mother's boyfriend when she was five. She saw him throw her mother down a flight of stairs. "I grew up really fast," she said.
She had rocks thrown at her by white classmates. She was called a "dirty Indian." She vividly remembers picking bottles to earn money and the smell of the bottle depot. She remembers thinking, "This place is disgusting, and I depend on it to live. Am I disgusting?" She was repeatedly told she was worthless. Eventually, she believed that to be true.
When Callingbull-Burnham and her mother were able to escape the violence and move in with her grandparents -- a medicine man and woman -- she was able to reconnect with her culture and began to heal. "It made me the woman I am today. It made me resilient."
In her teens, Callingbull-Burnham got involved in pageants which, for her, were a way to raise the profiles of the various charitable organizations she worked for. It was her way to leverage a sexist system. "I didn't like being society's idea of what is perfect."
After her Mrs. Universe win, she saw another opportunity. "It was the perfect time to open my mouth," she said.
And indeed, she's been vocal, particularly about missing and murdered indigenous women. "Why are indigenous women not considered a priority? How can a leader say that?" she asked. "We are a priority. We are human beings, as well. It's damn time we were treated like that."
It was one of many declarative, mike-drop moments in a passionate speech by a woman on fire. Tears were shed. Many clamoured to snap a selfie with her. She stayed long after her speech was over, chatting with her many admirers.
But they don't admire her because she is beautiful, though she is definitely that. There are so many reasons to admire her. Callingbull-Burnham was once a little girl who believed she was worthless. Now, she means so much to so many. And she's showing indigenous youth they, too, have worth. That they, too, deserve to be heard.
email@example.com Twitter: @JenZoratti
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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