When Ashley Burnham was declared the winner of the Mrs. Universe pageant—an international beauty competition for married women between the ages of 25 and 45 — her mouth dropped into an elated “O” and she clasped her hands across her face. This expression of shock and joy has become the de rigueur reaction of many a victorious pageant girl, but on Burnham, it seemed refreshingly unrehearsed. She has good reason to be genuinely thrilled and surprised by her own success — perhaps more so than most beauty queens.
A member of Canada’s Cree Nation, the 25-year-old Burnham is the first aboriginal woman to take the Mrs. Universe title. And from the moment the sparkling victory crown was placed on her head, Burnham has been vocal — far too vocal, in the opinion of her detractors — about what she perceives as grave injustices being perpetrated against her people. Burnham is shattering stereotypes of the bimbo beauty queen with steely resolve (rest assured, she is no Teen Miss South Carolina), and she has become a magnet for the Canadian media. But not too long ago, as a little girl mired in the tragic muck of poverty and abuse, she would have found her new status as a glittering media darling to be simply unfathomable.
“I never thought I would be in a pageant when I was a child,” Burnham told Women in the World. “I didn’t know if I was going to even be successful. I didn’t have high expectations for myself.”
Burnham (nee Callingbull) was born in Enoch, a Cree reserve in the Canadian province of Alberta. When she was five years old, she and her mother moved to a nearby reserve called Hobbema, where they lived with her mother’s boyfriend. It was the beginning of a nightmarish existence for Burnham. For years, she was allegedly raped and beaten by her mother’s boyfriend. She saw similar violence inflicted on her mother. She lived in abject poverty and claims her abuser deliberately starved her.
“Whatever money we had, he would take it away,” Burnham said. “I just remember all the time counting how much I could eat at night. Or sometimes I wouldn’t eat. I remember me and my mom constantly going out to town, picking bottles, and always bringing them to the bottle depot. I always remember the smell. It didn’t smell very good. But we would just count on that to get everything we can, because [my mother’s boyfriend] took everything away from us. He was trying to bring fear into our life so we wouldn’t leave … I was really emotionally messed up after that.”
It was a traumatic childhood, and sadly, not an atypical one. Rates of poverty, domestic abuse, and sexual violence within the First Nations communities of Canada are nothing short of staggering. Women and children are particularly at risk; studies indicate that as many as 50 percent of Aboriginal women in Canada were subjected to sexual abuse as children, whereas the average rate for non-Aboriginal women is 20 to 25 percent. Violence and poverty have led to rampant substance abuse among First Nations youth. The breakdown of family, community, and economic structures within certain aboriginal communities are complex sociological phenomena, which some researchers have attributed to the lingering and damaging effects of colonization.
As a teenager, Burnham saw many of her friends turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the chaos of their home lives. She realizes now that she was also on the fast track to becoming another statistic—another wounded, addicted child of a beleaguered community. But when she was 14, Burnham moved back to Enoch to live with her grandmother and her grandfather, who is a well-respected elder of the Enoch Cree. Under their guidance, Burnham started participating in traditional Cree practices. She won’t describe the particulars of the ceremonies that became a regular feature of her life (“it’s disrespectful”), but said that rediscovering her culture infused her with an invigorated sense of self.
“I realized who I really was,” Burnham explained. “There was more to life than grief and anger. I feel like with my culture, it did help me heal. It let me release emotions that I couldn’t let go. I wasn’t afraid anymore, and … I had more purpose to my life, because I knew more about myself. I thought there wasn’t anything more to me than being abused.”
Burnham also threw herself into community work. She volunteered at SOS Children’s Villages and at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Alberta, where her sister Ambee had been treated before she died at six days old, from the genetic defect Trisomy 18. As an adult, Burnham began to model and act (she most recently starred on the acclaimed TV series Blackstone, which explores life on a Canadian reserve), and started sharing her story in workshops with First Nations youth. Burnham decided to compete in in beauty pageants because she wanted to raise awareness for the charities she championed.
In a purely superficial sense, Burnham seems to be well-suited for the pageant world. She is tall and statuesque, with dark almond eyes and a cascading mane of black hair. In photographs, she smoulders. But pageants nevertheless proved to be a challenge. Burnham quickly found that she felt uncomfortable parading on stage in a bathing suit, in front of a panel of judges. And because she made a point of showcasing her heritage, competing in buck skin and beaded gowns, she encountered some fairly flagrant racism. One detractor reportedly asked if Burnham’s talent would include drinking Lysol and signing welfare checks with her toes.
It was with little sadness that Burnham put her pageant career to rest after she married her husband, a member of Canada’s Mohawk tribe. She didn’t think married women could compete in beauty pageants, until her mother brought her attention to the Mrs. Universe competition, a small and rather unusual iteration of the traditional pageant. In contrast to the Trump-endorsed extravaganza from which its name derives, the Mrs. Universe pageant places very little premium on contestants’ looks. Held this year in Belarus, the competition requires candidates to perform charity work during the event, discuss their contributions to their communities, and participate in forums on a given issue. The theme of the 2015 Mrs. Universe competition was violence against women and children—a subject all too close to Burnham’s heart.
During the week-long competition, Burnham shared the story of her difficult past, spoke about her community involvement, and visited local orphanages with the other contestants. She wore a jingle dress—the intricately-ornamented regalia of women’s pow wow dances—to the competition’s Parade of Nations. By the time the Burnham strode across the stage in a twinkling emerald gown during the event’s closing ceremony, she had already been chosen as the pageant’s winner.
From the moment she entered the competition, Burnham had a plan. “I was going to bring up all these issues because the [Canadian federal] election is so close,” she said. So as soon as the media began expressing an interest in her story, Burnham launched into a public and rather scathing diatribe against the Canadian government. She urged First Nations people not to vote for Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the upcoming election, saying “It feels like the government just does not care about us.” She spoke about the need to improve housing and sanitary conditions on reserves. Most of all, she expressed anger over the fact that more than one thousand First Nations women in Canada have been murdered or gone missing since 1980—an issue that has only come to the forefront of national attention over the past year or so—but little is being done to bring perpetrators to justice.
“[T]hat itself is a slap in the face to first nation women,” Burnham told Women in the World. “Especially because I lived in Edmonton. A lot of bodies are constantly found around the outskirts of Edmonton. First Nations women everywhere who have been murdered [are] just dumped on the sides of the city. It’s scary because it happens so often … I keep telling people, if I went missing as a First Nations woman — if I didn’t do this pageant, I was just a regular woman — I wouldn’t even be found. No one would even care.”
Burnham’s expositions in the press and on social media have been received with some hostility, expressed in varying degrees of thoughtfulness (Sample: “Why not ask to speak to Mr. Harper, and ask him personally any questions you have? You attack a man that you have never met. You attack his character and his professional position, only because you won a beauty pageant.”) But for the most part, Burnham has been met with encouragement and support.
“Any time an indigenous woman speaks her truth and has an opportunity to have that truth shared with a larger society, that is a good thing,” says Angela Marie McDougall, Executive Director of Battered Women’s Support Services, which runs programs for indigenous women. “We’re talking about the kind of changes we want to see here in Canada. We need to hear from women like Ashley … I think her voice is a strong voice. It’s a good platform. And I think she’s demonstrating a lot of courage and a lot of leadership. She’s inspiring lots of us, and certainly what I’ve seen [is that] indigenous youth are inspired by her. Young women are inspired by her.”
For the next four months, Burnham’s schedule is completely booked with appearances and speaking engagements. She has been contacted by political party representatives, who want to meet with her and talk. Burnham says that an assistant to one candidate told her that she wields more influence than the Assembly of First Nations Chief, who heads one of the most important indigenous advocacy organizations in Canada. This newfound influence provokes somewhat muddled emotions in Burnham. When asked how she feels about the onslaught of attention she has received, Burnham responded with a prolonged sigh.
“It’s a humbling feeling, but it’s also a huge responsibility,” she said. “I think it’s sad that I had to win a beauty pageant to get this exposure and talk about these issues … I have a lot of people who are supporting me. And then I have a lot of people who are trying to bring me down, because they don’t like me talking the truth. But I’m glad that, finally, people are listening.”