(WOMENSENEWS)—Less than a week after being crowned Mrs. Universe, Ashley Callingbull is calling for political change in her native country of Canada and putting the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women in the spotlight.
The 25-year-old made history last weekend in Belarus when she became the first Canadian and first aboriginal woman to win the international pageant, one for married women that focuses on community work rather than looks. Callingbull, whose married name is Burnham, hails from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta. The theme of this year’s competition, which is unaffiliated with the Miss Universe pageant, was addressing domestic violence. As a survivor of physical and sexual abuse, Callingbull has said the theme resonated with her.
Callingbull, an actress and model, has made it clear that she intends to make the most of her new international platform, raising awareness of issues affecting Canada’s aboriginal people. Within days of winning the title, Callingbull called on aboriginal people to vote out the Conservative party and its leader Stephen Harper in the upcoming federal election, taking place next month.
I urge all First Nations people in Canada to vote in this upcoming election. We are in desperate need of a new PM. Fight for your rights.
— Ashley (@AshCallingbull) August 31, 2015
Callingbull told CBC News she wants the current government out because it’s put indigenous issues on the back burner, including its approach to missing and murdered aboriginal women. “There’s a lot of issues that aren’t addressed in First Nations communities, like for example the murder and missing women that I’ve been talking about in every interview. There’s just a lot of things that we aren’t getting from the government. I believe that this government was created to work against us, and not for us.”
Missing, Murdered Women
Nearly 1,200 aboriginal women were murdered or went missing between 1980 and 2012, most in rural areas, according to a report released by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police last year, and aboriginal women have a homicide rate roughly 4.5 times higher than that of all other women in Canada. The RCMP updated those figures earlier this year to include 32 new homicides (within their jurisdiction) from 2013 to 2014, and 11 new cases of missing aboriginal women. The new report also confirmed that aboriginal women are most frequently killed by someone they know.
“I think that the murdered and missing subject is so crucial. It’s so sad. Say, for example, a Caucasian woman is missing in the news, it’s a big deal, but for First Nations women we are just pushed aside because there’s so many of us missing,” Callingbull told APTN.
There have been continuous calls for a national inquiry into the murders and disappearances of these women, but so far the Canadian government has ruled out such a move. In addition to the inquiry, some aboriginal leaders point to investing in education, training and child care on reserves and developing an action plan on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations on residential schools, released earlier this year, as election priorities.
An attempt by the satirical news website The Beaverton to draw attention to the issue of national coverage of missing and murdered indigenous women backfired after it withdrew a controversial article on Callingbull’s win and issued an apology. Headlined “Mrs. First Cree Woman to Gain National Coverage If She Disappears,” the article said, “Burnham is showing all those aboriginal girls out there that as long as you look like a supermodel and get on TV, you too can get the same news coverage as a white girl should you ever be abducted.” The article was met by major backlash and outrage from indigenous and other groups.
Not ‘Typical Beauty Queen’
While some have criticized Callingbull for being too political, she’s not backing down any time soon. In a Facebook post she responded to critics: Social media and other online sites have hosted an outpouring of support for Callingbull. A post on the blog ElleBeaver, for instance, raved: “Burnham’s voice defies the ugly, violent stereotype of what Canada holds to be true of an Indigenous woman. Her voice is one of authenticity, of experience – the voice of a woman who survived sexual abuse as a child, poverty, the daughter of a woman who survived domestic violence – and who turned to her rich cultural heritage to overcome…setting aside the often antiquated nature of beauty pageants, Burnham’s queenly role on the international stage will give ‘Indian Country’ the shining platform, the echo chamber and megaphone from which she will launch a populist, grassroots cris-de-coeur for us all to finally listen to the countless injustices committed against her Indigenous brothers and sisters.” Reactions on Twitter were also mostly positive:
I despise pageants but applaud Mrs Universe Ashley Callingbull, a 1st Nations Canadian, for using this platform to draw attention to issues.
— Bea Broda (@beabroda) September 2, 2015
Some even called for Callingbull to get more involved in politics:
Ashley Callingbull for Prime Minister 2015 — kuni-masks (@masksarehot) September 2, 2015