First Nations Mrs. Universe winner shares how culture saved her

By sharing her story, Ashley Callingbull said she hopes she can inspire others to pursue their goals regardless of where they come from.

Ashley Callingbull tells Fredericton audience how she overcame years of abuse to make history

Ashley Callingbull, the first First Nations woman and the first Canadian to win the Mrs. Universe pageant, spoke in Fredericton Saturday as part of Gignoo Transition House’s 25th anniversary celebrations (Sarah Petz/CBC )

As a successful actress, model, and the first First Nations woman and the first Canadian to win the Mrs. Universe pageant, Ashley Callingbull says many people assume her life has been easy.

But Callingbull wants people to know that's far from the truth.

"They judge a book by its cover," she said.

"They think that everything was handed to me, but that's not how it was at all. I had to overcome a lot of obstacles, trauma, emotional issues to get where I am."

Callingbull was in Fredericton this weekend as a keynote speaker for Gignoo Transition House's 25th anniversary celebrations.

Physically and sexually abused by her mom's boyfriend for years starting when she was five, Callingbull said she felt ashamed and powerless as a young girl.

She also spoke about the racism she lived through going to an off-reserve school, even having rocks and dirt thrown at her. 

"I thought, how can I overcome something like this? Something so traumatic that has broken me," she said.

Callingbull gets a 'thumbs up' from a fan while taking photos and meeting people after her speech Saturday morning. (Sarah Petz/CBC )

Ultimately, she says it was her culture that saved her.

After she and her mother escaped from her mother's boyfriend, Callingbull said she started spending more time with her grandparents, who practiced traditional Indigenous medicine, and learning more about her culture.

Callingbull, originally from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, said reconnecting with her culture saved her.

"I found a strength I never knew I had inside me," she said after her talk. 

"The culture that I have is the one thing I can carry with me wherever I go, and I think it's the one thing that makes me stronger."

Callingbull (her married name is Burnham) pumps her fist in the air as she wins the 'Mrs Universe 2015' contest in Minsk, Belarus. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)

She won the Mrs. Universe competition, an international beauty pageant that focuses on married contestants, in 2015. 

She said she feels her title has given her a voice to create change and highlight the stark realities many First Nations people face. 

For example, she said she feels that the abuse she suffered was the result of intergenerational trauma, something many First Nations people have to deal with.

"The physical and sexual abuse. That's something that was passed on from my abuser's parents. They were residential school survivors that were also abused, and then they abused their children and that came onto me," she said. 

"It's crazy to think that past experiences that had nothing to do with me are affecting me to this day. And that's just a normal thing for First Nations people to deal with."

By sharing her story, she said she hopes she can inspire others to pursue their goals regardless of where they come from.

"I've chased all my passions regardless of being Indigenous and all the barriers that would hold me back," she said. "And I've accomplished so much because my culture saved my life."