“My Culture Saved My Life” – The Standard

Originally Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2017 7:28:34 EDT PM The Standard

Love and live fearlessly. Those are the words that Ashley Callingbull has said to herself since she was a child.


Callingbull, actress, model, motivational speaker and First Nations activist, was the keynote speaker at the fourth annual Niagara Leadership Summit for Women.

As a Cree First Nations woman who was the first First Nations woman to win the title of Miss Universe, she used her crown to bring attention to the struggles and injustices facing First Nations peoples. She also has a lengthy resume of charity work, has also appeared on the Gemini-winning TV show Blackstone and participated (and came third) with her dad Joel in The Amazing Race Canada last year.

Growing up at Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, she had many struggles early on in her life and turned to her culture as a way of healing. She spoke about her story and her struggles to get where she is now.

“In all honesty it’s very difficult growing up a First Nations girl and it’s still really difficult for me to live life as a First Nations woman today,” said Callingbull. “I feel like I have to work extra hard to become the person that I want to be because we are so stereotyped and so judged on the colour of our skin, because of our background and because of where we come from, and it’s sad because I come from this country. We are the first peoples of this country and the fact that I have to work extra hard to be standing here and doing the things that I do, it shouldn’t be that way.”

Callingbull faced racism at school beginning on her first day when she was five years old, facing rocks and dirt being flung at her as she and the other First Nations children got off the bus as other children yelled racial insults at them. She also suffered from years of abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend before her mother left him. A court case that followed saw Callingbull take the stand as a child and recount all of the physical and sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and his brothers.

“I didn’t know how to be strong,” said Callingbull. “Because I felt to weak and belittled.”

Deemed “disturbed” by the court because of her anger issues, she found her path to healing by developing a connection to her culture.

She saw how helping others brought her grandparents happiness and followed in their footsteps.

“My culture saved my life.”

Her story was one of hope and strength for Saturday’s audience at Brock University, there to hear stories of strong, empowered women. The goal of the conference is to empower women and give them a chance to meet and talk to other women.

Breaking barriers was the theme for the summit organized by the planning committee of the YWCA.

“Want to redefine leadership by bringing more women into the picture,” said Julie Rorison, chair of the event and board of directors for the YWCA.

About 300 women and some men spent the day in workshops and panel discussions all dealing with issues facing women today. Issues such as succeeding in traditionally male dominated fields of work and study, racism, how to get more involved in politics, breaking barriers in mental health and aboriginal justice.

“We are all about celebrating women’s leadership and the diverse women in our community who are leaders in our everyday lives whether that be at work, at school at their business in their families,” said Rorison. “The main message from me about this is that it is a really positive inspirational atmosphere that we aim to create to celebrate and highlight the amazing people in our community who are doing really positive things and inspiring the next generation and we want to tell them and show them that they are leaders and that they are valued.”

One of the main focuses of the conference was on the upcoming municipal and provincial elections.

“We want to highlight the fact that we are a year out from a provincial election and municipal election and there are some major ways that women can bring their voice to the table and make change and not just by running for office but by getting informed about the issues,” said Rorison. “Issues that are impacting women locally and how they can become more aware of what those issues are, ask questions and have conversations and to use their leadership skills and abilities to make change.”

Another focus is to encore women to take up careers and education in fields that are traditionally male dominated, such as science, technology, engineering and math.

“We have seen some groups that have formed from this, new friendships made particularly around the topic of women working in traditionally male dominated leadership roles and creating new mentorship opportunities through those new relationships,” said Rorison.