Miss Universe 2015 winner Ashley Callingbull shares her journey from pageantry to becoming a national voice for First Nations youth.

Mediaplanet: What was your biggest take away from winning Miss Universe?

Ashley Callingbull: The biggest takeaway from winning Miss Universe was being the first First Nations woman to win and using that title to bring attention to First Nations issues in Canada. It was an honour to make history and use the media attention I was receiving to speak for those who weren’t being heard.

MP: As a First Nations pageant contestant, do you feel like your experience was different from the other contestants and how?

AC: My pageant experiences are always different from other contestants because of my background. I am either stereotyped or people are in awe that I am First Nations Cree. When I am competing in a pageant I am always the only First Nations woman, and the type of experience I have always depends on which country I am competing in. When I competed at Miss Universe Canada I experienced a lot of racism, because I was the only First Nations delegate, and I was stereotyped because of that. When I competed in Europe I was applauded for being proud of my heritage, and I was told that’s what made me a strong and beautiful contestant. 

MP: How have the opportunities available to you changed since winning?

AC: I received a lot of media attention after my win, which definitely brought more opportunities my way. Before I competed I was already an actress, model, and travelling the world to work with at-risk youth. My outspokenness gave me a further reach to be able to help so many more people. I was also approached for more acting and modelling gigs, which is always fun for me.

MP: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Ingenious youth today?

AC: One of the biggest challenges for Indigenous youth is the lack of hope. When youth don’t have hope for their lives or their future, they turn to drugs, alcohol, or suicide. When youth are more immersed in their culture — it helps strengthen their mindsets. Our culture is what makes us strong, resilient, and beautiful. If there were more youth programs — such as cultural, sports, or health — this would help them from spiralling into a dark place. It would bring light into their lives and give them meaning to feel proud of who they are, and it would give them the strength to be the best versions of themselves.

MP: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

AC: I would tell myself to never be ashamed of my background or where I come from. I would tell myself to always be proud of the way the creator made me, because I was created this way for a reason. I’d tell myself to love and appreciate myself for who I am and never let fear stop me from going after my biggest dreams.

MP: What can Canadians do to become better allies of First Nations communities?

AC: Canadians need to be more educated on what First Nations people have been through and what we are still going through. Reconciliation starts with education and understanding. We are resilient because we’ve overcome genocide, and yet even in this day and age we are still fighting for our future. Canadians need to recognize and understand the truth and injustices our people have suffered. It all starts with being educated on the truth.