For the longest time, Ashley Callingbull questioned her worth.
As an Enoch Cree Nation child growing up west of Edmonton, she was physically and sexually abused. She went hungry, gathering bottles with her mother to scrounge money for food. Classmates threw rocks at her, called her "dirty Indian" and stole her only shoes – a $2 pair from Value Village.
She had always been competitive, and that's what would save her. She won on-reserve pageants, taking home an Enoch crown at age 8 when most competitors were 14. She graduated from high school when she was 16. A self-described tomboy, she competed in Miss Universe Canada in 2010, wondering, all the while, whether she was "too much of a [reserve] girl" to participate.
Speaking Wednesday at the Spirit of Our Sisters conference in Edmonton on murdered and missing indigenous women, she recounted how one journalist wrote at the time of the 2010 pageant, "What is she going to do for the talent competition, write welfare cheques with her toes, or chug Lysol?"
"That's ridiculous," Ms. Callingbull, now 25, remembered thinking. "That is not who I am. And I'm going to prove to them that they're wrong."
And she has. In August, the actress became the only First Nations woman to have been crowned Mrs. Universe. Today, she is using her public platform to help speak for Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women, adding her voice to the growing chorus calling for a national inquiry into the violence. She sat down with The Globe before giving her keynote address.
How would you describe your upbringing?
Rough. Difficult. It was pretty tragic. It was a constant struggle, but I overcame it. We lived in poverty. [My mom's] boyfriend at the time would take everything from us – any money my mom made, he would take it from us. Beat us. Rape us. I remember it got to the point where we would have to count how much we would eat. [My mom] would say, 'You can have two perogies tonight.' I remember picking bottles everywhere we went [living in Hobbema, Alta.]. I remember the smell of the bottle depot. It always stays in my memory. It was disgusting, and that's how I felt about myself.
How did those experiences affect you early on?
I had really low self-esteem. [The abuse] started when I was 5. I didn't know what was right and what was wrong. When we finally escaped [around age 11], we went to my grandmother's house [on Enoch Cree Nation]. As I got older, I had really bad trust issues with everyone. I was angry for a long time. I hated myself. I thought everything was my fault.
When did you realize your self-worth?
I had dealt with a lot of racism at school. People would throw rocks at me when I got off the bus. They'd say, 'You dirty Indian, go back to where you came from.' One day, it just clicked. 'I don't want to suffer any more.' It was weird having a decent bed at my grandmother's, compared with a mattress on the floor. I felt like things were starting to turn around. I thought, 'No one is really going to help me. My family is there to support me, but I'm going to be the only one to pull myself through this.' I thought, 'I'm going to start with school. I never want to be poor again. I never want to pick bottles. I never want to be beat up and raped.' The reason I wanted to act is sad: I always wanted to be someone other than myself.
How does it feel to be you now?
It feels great. Acting kind of turned into something else. It helped me express emotions in a different way. I went to sweats and ceremonies, and I feel like that helped me. I had to grow up really fast. I never felt like a kid.
How do you connect with the issue of murdered and missing indigenous women?
I think it's ridiculous that we're not treated as equals. We're not as important, to the government, as other women in this country. Being in Edmonton, I hear about it all the time. I hear about how some of my friends' friends have gone missing. It's scary. It's getting worse and worse. It's to the point where girls' bodies are being found 15 minutes from my house. We had a cousin that was murdered. She was found on [serial killer] Robert Pickton's farm [in B.C.]. I have friends that have gone [missing] and not returned. The fact that there has been no inquiry shows how the government feels about us. It shows to people in this country that they can get away with taking us away. If I wasn't in the media, I could be walking in the streets and someone could take me. They would know I wouldn't get the attention.
Earlier this week, you met for the first time Rinelle Harper, the indigenous teen who narrowly survived a brutal assault last year in Winnipeg. What was that like for you?
She's very blessed and very lucky to be alive, but you could feel the trauma that she's still dealing with. I could feel the pain is still there. I talked to her mom, and she said she's not the same any more. It's going to take a while for her to get back to being normal. This process is a life journey of healing. It really is. I was amazed she could [speak at Tuesday's Spirit of Our Sisters gala] because it happened not too long ago. It's something that takes a lot of courage and strength to do.
How will the disproportionate rate of violence against indigenous women factor into the way you vote on Oct. 19? You have said publicly you want to see the Conservatives ousted …
I think it's ridiculous how some political parties are bringing up [the issue] right before the election, to gain votes. But I've talked to some political leaders and we'll see what happens. I'm not going to endorse anyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed