Ashley Callingbull Burnham, a 25-year-old Cree woman from Alberta, won an international beauty pageant over the weekend, and immediately began using her new-found platform to speak out for native rights and to urge all indigenous people in Canada to register to vote, and
to vote en masse against the Conservatives in Canada's upcoming federal election
The first Canadian and First Nations woman to win Mrs. Universe is using her new fame to urge aboriginal people in Canada to vote to oust the Conservatives in the federal election.
Callingbull-Burnham, who is from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation, west of Edmonton, won the Mrs. Universe contest Aug. 29. The international beauty pageant started in 2007 and focuses on married contestants.
Since her win, Callingbull-Burnham has been vocal about First Nations concerns in Canada.
"I believe that this government was created to work against us and not for us," said Ashley Callingbull-Burnham in an interview with Rosemary Barton on CBC's Power & Politics on Wednesday.
"There's just so many problems with it for First Nations people. We're always put on the back burner," she said.
Adequate housing, clean water, proper education and oil pipelines are all major issues for First Nations people, she said.
"With the bills that have been passed, we are being treated like terrorists if we're fighting for our land and our water," Callingbull-Burnham said.
"It's our right to, and now we're being treated like terrorists if we do anything about it ... It's ridiculous."
As she posted on Facebook
I urge all First Nations people in Canada to vote in this upcoming election. We are in desperate need of a new Prime Minister. Fight for your rights before they get taken away. Please vote to make change. Say NO to Harper's government!
Canada's indigenous population is over 4 percent of the total population, but is concentrated in the North, where they make up majorities, and in the western provinces, where they make up very substantial minorities
The Mrs. Universe pageant, held this year in Belarus, isn't strictly a beauty pageant. Contestants are judged on their social and charity work. The theme of this year's pageant was "Domestic violence and reflection over children."
Callingbull had previously competed in Miss Universe Canada and Miss World Canada competitions, and was poised to use whatever platform she won to speak out for indigenous rights:
People think I'm too political for my first day as Mrs Universe. 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. I'm getting all this media attention and I'm going to use it to the best of my ability. I'm not your typical beauty queen. Look out... I have a voice for change and I'm going to use it!
When she ran in the Miss Canada pageant in 2010, she was the only Native contestant, and faced racism
Callingbull said winning the Mrs. Universe crown is a blow against the stereotypes surrounding First Nations people. When competing in previous pageants, she said, she was judged for coming from the Enoch reserve, west of Edmonton, and told that she wasn't expected to place well in the competitions....
She said that while she got a lot of support, she was also the target of racist comments.
"A newspaper (wrote), 'What is she going to do for her talent, write a welfare cheque with her toes?'" Callingbull said.
"Just horrible, horrible things."
That experience only made her more determined to compete in this competition in a way that proudly showcased her authentic Native culture, instead of in its more familiar but crassly debased appropriated form
But, as [Callingbull] told Saskatoon Morning host Leisha Grebinski on CBC Radio, do not dismiss her as a "pocahottie."
"I don't wear headdresses; I don't do any of that. That's not me."
The term "pocahottie" is derogatory, and refers to First Nations themed styles of dress that is often revealing and not culturally appropriate.
"I want to represent our culture properly, in the right way," said Callingbull. "It made me genuine and unique from the other contestants."
Callingbull brought her culture to the pageant both in dress, and talent. She wore a customized jingle dress in Canadian colours with maple leaves, and danced. For the talent portion Callingbull 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.
It was important for the European audience to see authentic Cree culture, Callingbull told Saskatoon Morning.
"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."
I'm no fan of beauty pageants, but I find Ashley Callingbull a resourceful, brave and inspiring young woman who's using the avenues she's been able to open for herself to advocate forcefully for what she believes in, and to agitate for positive political change.
She's getting some nasty pushback from unhappy conservatives and Stephen Harper fans. Go give her some love and support on facebook and twitter, if you're so minded.
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