Miss Universe Canada's totem pole dress shocks First Nations people

In a tale of two pageants, First Nations people have gone from being proud to outraged.

Torontonian Paola Nunuz Valdez wore the offending dress at this week’s Miss Universe contest

Miss Universe Canada's dress appears to be based on West Coast totem pole designs. (Missuniversecanadaofficial/Instagram)

In a tale of two pageants, First Nations people have gone from being proud to outraged.

In August, Ashley Callingbull, a 25-year-old from Alberta's Enoch Cree Nation, won the Mrs. Universe contest. Callingbull said she hoped her win would be a blow to stereotypes about aboriginal contestants and encourage other First Nations women to participate in contests.

But this week, Paola Nunuz Valdez, a Torontonian of Dominican descent competing as Canada's contestant at the Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas last week, was scorned by many for wearing a dress that depicted a totem pole, similar to those found on Canada's West Coast.

"Totem Goddess," her Instagram post of the outfit said.

"Miss Canada on the Miss Universe stage beautifully embracing her ethnic culture."

Photos of the dress — essentially a bikini adorned with plumes of black feathers, a headdress and the totem pole as long as the beauty queen's legs — were quickly met with backlash after being posted online.

"As a Canadian First Nations, I sincerely hope you don't win. Your national costume is disgusting and disgrace to all Indigenous people," said a comment from Susie Caggiano on the contestant's Facebook page, one of dozens of messages decrying the outfit.

"This does not help First Nations people in Canada. I have a daughter who is First Nations and also does beauty pageants," Bernice Albert said on the same page.

"When she saw this 'costume,' she was angered."

Dominican heritage

In a statement, Valdez said the dress was a "misunderstanding" and that the design was meant to refer to her own heritage as a Dominican, not to reflect on Canada's aboriginal culture.

She was born in the Dominican Republic, which shares with Haiti the large Caribbean island east of Cuba. While totem poles may exist there, they don't play as prominent role in the culture as they do on Canada's west coast.

Callingbull, in a Facebook post, suggested Miss Universe Canada hire a cultural consultant in the future to avoid hanging an important symbol from a future contestant's crotch.

She also criticized the organization's attempt to cover up its error.

"I'd like to see these so called 'west coast Dominican Republic Totem Poles.' They are really trying to protect themselves and didn't even have the heart to simply apologize," she wrote.

The dress was worn for part of the contest in Las Vegas, where the contestants model outfits based on their country's history. Earlier this year, Miss Universe Canada Chanel Beckenlehner wore a dress featuring 11 hockey sticks, elbow pads and a hat in the shape of the Stanley Cup at one contest.

Nunuz Valdez didn't win the Miss Universe contest. That honour went to Miss Philippines — though not before host Steve Harvey wrongly announced that Miss Colombia had won the prize.