Ashley Callingbull

Ashley Callingbull is a Canadian actress, model and spokesperson. A former participant on The Amazing Race Canada, Nike ambassador, and, most famously, the first Canadian, and first Indigenous woman to ever win the title of Mrs. Universe. All of those titles are important to the 30-year-old from Enoch Cree Nation, just west of Edmonton, but they’re not what keeps her up at night. "People think I'm too political on my first day as Mrs. Universe," tweeted Callingbull after winning her Mrs. Universe crown in 2015. "Did you think I was going to sit there and look pretty?"
This summer, we are living through an overdue period of global civil unrest. Sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it has ricocheted throughout Canada, from the June shooting of Rodney Levi in Metepenagiag First Nation, outside of New Brunswick, to the violent arrest of Chief Allen Adam in Fort McMurray in March, with graphic video camera footage also released in June. To Callingbull, who has shouted from the rafters to pay attention to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, it feels like her message of protest and resistance is finally being heard. Our country, says Callingbull, is in the midst of a crisis. Ben Kaplan caught up with the activist outside her Edmonton home.
Photograph: Soko Fotohaus // Hair and Makeup: Mariah Callingbull
  • BK: Five years ago, you were telling the world to listen. Does it feel like, in the summer of 2020, people finally are?

    AC: It feels like—about time.

  • BK: It’s crazy that these videos all surfaced—from George Floyd to Chief Adam—all during a global pandemic.

    AC: The whole world came to a halt just as everyone was calling out injustices and Indigenous people in Canada are facing the same thing as Black people in America. We’re standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement—we’re dealing with the same thing up here.

  • BK: Were you surprised by the degree of the rioting?

    AC: There’s only so much people can take and the fact that everyone is taking a stand and saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ there is a tipping point. It’s only crazy that it took so long. That said, I have friends—people of colour—that when the riots happened, they were scared to go outside. They don’t trust the police, that’s one thing, but I don’t agree with people looting or vandalism. For me, it's about the voices and coming together in a safe and healthy way.

  • BK: You’ve been vocal about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and our cover shoot was your idea. What do you want kind readers to know?

    AC: There’s so many injustices Indigenous People face from the police. If you were a Caucasian woman, you’d be on the news if you were missing; Indigenous women, that happens all the time. Nobody cares. They think, ‘It’s just another Native woman,’ there’s a stereotype about us. We’re not valued. We’re disposable. And that’s the last thing I want Indigenous People to feel.

  • BK: That’s a good transition to your work in the foster care system and your work in Alberta with at-risk women and kids.

    AC: I work with kids in the foster care system and let me tell you, that’s the new residential schools. Indigenous People in this country don’t have proper housing, we don’t have clean water, there’s so much wrong with what’s going on in this country, but you don’t see it because the mainstream media doesn’t like to post about it everyday.

  • BK: What do you mean?

    AC: Every day Indigenous People are battling a system that was created not for us, but against us.

  • BK: Do you think that’s how a lot of Indigenous People feel?

    AC: We’re battling to survive and be here; to fight for our land that was taken from us. It’s a constant battle to get people to understand where we’re coming from, but that’s what I’m here for—to use my voice and educate people. Non-Indigenous people have to be more than just allies. They need to know the history and understand what we’re doing. They need to do more than just show up.

Photograph by Chris Nicholls
  • BK: This far into our interview and we’ve yet to discuss Mrs. Universe or The Amazing Race Canada.

    AC: If it takes a beauty crown or TV show for people to listen to something from me that’s political, well, I’m all about the shock and awe. I basically used pageants to move forward and help other people. When you’re taking on a role like that, when you become any type of ambassador, it gives you a platform to make change and reach people. I’m happy to talk about Mrs. Universe or The Amazing Race—I’m proud of both things, but there’s change that’s needed in the world right now, and that’s what we need to discuss.

  • BK: The TV show, the beauty crown. Do you see yourself breaking through the glass ceiling for Indigenous women?

    AC: I remember New York Fashion Week. I didn’t see any other Indigenous models, but OK—here, we go. It humbles me and grounds me. I will never forget where I came from.

  • BK: This is a magazine handed out in legal cannabis retail locations in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. Do you think the cannabis world has dealt fairly with Indigenous People?

    AB: I feel like Indigenous People would be better represented and should have been consulted prior to legalization. On reserves, it’s used as a healing plant and that’s how we think of it.

  • BK: What are your views on the legalization of pot?

    AC: I don’t grow anything. I know my community doesn’t grow anything, but we have a store, and that brings jobs and revenue for the community. And that’s doing well for my people.

  • BK: So are you pro-pot?

    AC: It’s not my say to tell anyone how to live their life. If you use it for health reasons, that’s great, it will help you ease pain and be more comfortable. And if you’re using it recreationally, use it safely. Who am I to judge?

  • BK: You’ve definitely always been outspoken. You think á la Taylor Swift there’s more appetite for our celebrities to have political views?

    AC: I don’t do anything stupid. For me, it’s great to get my name out there and I’m doing work for myself, but it’s important not to forget where I came from. There are other people out there with dreams like mine. I’m opening the door for other Indigenous People.

Photograph my Oscar Picazo
They've yet to see the power of the people—but it's coming.
  • BK: You’re talking about representation.

    AC: It’s important for us to take up space. We don’t have that space—not yet.

  • BK: I know you see your grandparents as influences. How come?

    AC: I learned to help people from them. I need to help people—my people. My people need all the help they can get and I’m going to take it as far as I can. I don’t have to demean myself or do things out of character, but I think it’s right to use my voice and call out all the crap people are saying that isn’t true. I’m not afraid to use my voice, and I’m not afraid of what people will say about me. I grew up in poverty and abuse and I had to grow up fast. I don’t take life for granted.

  • BK: The abuse—physical and sexual—that you suffered, and saw your mom suffer, and your treatment at the hands of white classmates—you’ve been out in the open about all of it. That can’t be easy. And yet you let every interviewer bring it up.

    AC: My story is common in Indigenous communities. A lot of us deal with abuse, as well as intergenerational trauma, and a lot of people are ashamed to talk about it, but I don’t want the kids to feel like they have no one to look at, who came out of it, and who healed.

  • BK: What is your message?

    AC: I lived through a lot of things. Look where I am now.

  • BK: And you actually get in there and talk to the kids and abused women on the reserves. You stay amongst your people at Enoch Cree Nation.

    AC: ‘I’m here for you.’ I tell them that every day. There’s no telling what you can be. See, it’s a ripple effect: this is more that I learned from my grandparents, you never know who’s listening or who’s watching. There’s always someone looking up to you. It’s powerful.

  • BK: Tell me about your work as a volunteer.

    AC: I want to create my own foundation for women and children who are at-risk, who’ve been victims of domestic violence. We need more shelters because there’s not enough space and I know that for a fact. My mom and I tried to escape to a shelter and there was no room for us and our life was on the line. I want to create opportunities for women who had dreams like my mother did.

  • BK: You’re a good role model. A supermodel, and yet, again, we haven’t spoken once about fashion or your cosmetics line.

    AC: I want the decisions I make to be good ones. I want fashion campaigns and cosmetics lines, but I also want the kids to see how positive I am. I persevere. I overcame it. I’ve had the same obstacles that they have. My entire career I’ve had people tell me that I don’t belong because of the colour of my skin. They say I’m a ‘reserve girl,’ that I won’t understand what it’s like to be mainstream.

  • BK: What are you fighting for?

    AC: I open the door for myself and whoever wants to follow, let’s go.

  • BK: Hobnobbing in Los Angeles, but here in Canada, too. What have you had to explain about white privilege?

I open the door for myself and whoever wants to follow.
  • BK: Hobnobbing in Los Angeles, but here in Canada, too. What have you had to explain about white privilege?

    AC: White privilege is not believing that there’s two different Canadas. A Canada where water’s an issue, where there’s a whole different perspective on the police. If you haven’t grown up with it, learn your history. I don’t say this in a mean way. We need allies. But I have no problem telling people why we protest. The only way our country can grow is together.

  • BK: What does ‘systemic racism’ mean to you?

    AC: A lot of my relatives have been attacked by the police. Around here, we call it ‘the Starlight Tour,’ the police, the RCMP, they take Natives out of their clothes and shoes and leave them in the middle of the north to freeze and die. It still happens.

  • BK: And that’s systemic racism?

    AC: Yeah—we’re targeted. Because we live on reserves, they think we’re not civilized. It’s sickening. My grandfather went to a residential school. The RCMP just rounded up the Indigenous People and took them away. But today, what’s ‘systemic racism?’ It’s that we don’t have Indigenous People at the head table making decisions or speaking on behalf of us.

  • BK: White privilege is that the decision-makers are white.

    AC: It’s the privilege of power. That’s what scares us. That’s what needs to be checked. Chantel Moore was shot and killed in New Brunswick during a wellness check. We’ll never know her story. But she was afraid for her life because a boyfriend and a cop came and now she’s no longer with us.

  • BK: So what do we do? You’re Mrs. Universe. Chantel Moore was all over the news. People are listening.

    AC: Acknowledge systemic racism. Say it out loud. We can’t address the injustice—people missing, people dying, people suffering—with people in power saying how great this country is and then blaming us. We don’t get anything for free. I’ve had to work harder to get where I am because I’m Indigenous. I’m not in politics, but I love to educate with kindness. But talk again about white privilege. People know that the moment is changing. And losing that privilege, that power, scares racist people. They think that power is what separates us.

  • BK: What’s going to happen?

    AC: They’ve yet to see the power of the people—but it’s coming.

Cover Image Contributors:nPhotography: Chris NichollsnArt Direction & Wardrobe: Randy SmithnHair & Make-up: Sabrina Rinaldi at P1MnPost-Production: Lorca Moore