BWT Marquee 2021 Keynote Speech: Ashley Callingbull
Kicking off the Annual Bringing Women Together Vancouver Marquee, Ashley Callingbull gave an inspirational keynote speech, sharing her journey of finding herself, passion, and community.
Former Miss Universe, a talented actor, model, dancer, an environmental and First Nations Rights activist, motivational speaker, and spokesperson for various brands, Ashley Callingbull is who she is not by these non-exhaustive labels, but by all that she has accomplished and done for her community. Reading her biography, it might be easy to quickly judge a book by its cover, her journey was not a simple path, having to overcome challenges and obstacles early on in her life.
From the Enoch Cree Nation, growing up she briefly lived with her grandparents, who pursued a traditional life. A message they shared with her young self was to always be proud of who she is, that she can always find strength in her culture. Ashley has since held unto this, bringing her culture with her wherever she goes and in everything that she does.
At a young age she decided to push herself into things she was passionate about and strived to get her education, knowing her and her children would have a secure future. She excelled in her studies, graduating high school early and went on to pursue a Bachelor of Science majoring in Physics. She was surprised to find that she was not only the only Indigenous person but also one of the only women in her program. Having grown up with a lot of people telling her that she doesn’t belong, this experience was no different. She sought out to prove them wrong, once again graduating with an accelerated degree at the top of her class!
After university, knowing she enjoyed writing and sharing stories from culture, she completed a film and television degree to add to her many pursuits in life. Having always given back to various communities early on as a teenager raising funds in her own special way, she knew she wanted to give back, especially to families who had had the same experiences as her. She got into pageantry and fully embraced her Indigenous identity. Feeling her most proud, she experienced a whole level of racism from the media and users online. Despite the negativity, Ashley went on to be the first Indigenous women to be Miss Canada, receiving lots of love and support from various communities across the nation. Being true to her values, she used her platform to make a powerful impact when she won Miss Universe 2015, calling out the many injustices of the Canadian government towards the Indigenous people from MMIWG, to the foster care system, the poor conditions of the reserves, and what little was done by the prime minister. She bravely spoke her truth and did what was right. Canada finally listened, although only finally really hearing it from a beauty queen raising concerns and bringing attention to such important issues.
Post-pageantry, and having broken out of her shell, Ashley embraced all that was unique with herself, caring less and less of what people thought. She started her career doing cartoons before settling on her passion for acting. Realizing that she shouldn’t limit herself in anyway, she auditioned and joined the Gemini award-winning show Blackstone, a drama with an all Indigenous cast. She appreciated the work that was done and everyone’s efforts, realizing this rare opportunity and how not a lot of people want to make space for minority voices and experiences. Working in the film industry, she really is chasing her dream, knowing that it would be easier if she was someone else. Even if she is not welcomed, she does not hold back from putting herself out there, as she is not only representing herself but her community. This serves as an important reminder to create opportunities and spaces for everyone, and we certainly need more diverse narratives in our media. Ashley was excited to share with us that she’s currently wrapping up filming for the series Tribal in Calgary this month.
In everything that she does, Ashley always asks herself: “What more can I do? What more can I give?” Being a motivational speaker for more than a decade, she has spoken at many events from Harvard University to We Day in front of thousands of people. She not only speaks up but speaks out, learning that her voice can not only be powerful, but can encourage others to join in as well. Ashley has also made sure to share her messages with anyone she can, reaching out to isolated communities, bringing stories of success and hope. Wishing she had someone looking like herself being passionate in what they were chasing growing up, she makes sure the doors are wide open to whoever else that wants to follow in her footsteps or otherwise.
Her ultimate goal is to leave a story behind, lift and inspire others, and shine the light forward. Because the biggest success is shared community success.
Ashley took a moment to answer some of our burning questions, view her responses below!
What are you most proud of?
Being viewed as a leader in the community, especially what her sisters and kids see in her is very important. Along with bringing positivity and determination to everything she does. Having found her own path in life, she takes pride in helping others find their own path as well, especially supporting people in the right direction.
Having pursued formal education in various fields with a BSc in Honours Physics, how do we encourage STEM for young girls?
Having great teachers in high school who made learning fun really inspired her towards pursuing science. It’s also important to realize that no one else’s opinions matter except your own. Remembering that not everything is a competition and making sure to focus on yourself and your studies as it’s easy to get distracted. Time goes by so fast in school, so really take the time to enjoy the experience. And as always, knowing when to ask for help, there’s a lot of support and groups available at school, you’re never alone!
How do you care less about what people think about? How do you have the courage to be your authentic self?
It’s all about being the best version of herself. It’s more difficult being a public figure as people feel they are entitled to an opinion on her life while having no idea who she really is. Learning that you can’t please everyone and putting her own happiness first was a key step. Regardless of what people say, it’s important to know and work on how she herself feels on the inside. All she can really do is worry about herself and focus on the good work she has been doing. Her key message is to know who you are and what you stand for.
How can allies provide support for the Indigenous communities?
Non-indigenous allies are important. It’s also important to show up, not just speak up. There’s so many different resources and information available on MMIWG and the true history of Canada, which are things you might not have heard about in school. Allies can also educate and bring awareness.
What’s your next big goal? How are you staying motivated during the pandemic?
Ashley has many dreams for her future that she’s currently working towards, her main goal being to establish her own foundation to support Indigenous women and children by providing shelters, support, and safe spaces.
The pandemic has been a very uncertain period this past year. She has managed by keeping active and eating healthy. Setting little goals for her day has helped with maintaining motivation. Although we are stuck inside, going outside in nature has been therapeutic. If you feel alone, know that we’re all in this together.
A big thank you to Ashley Callingbull, BWT, and attendants for an inspirational keynote presentation!
Written by Rojina Sar Salari