‘I’m not going to shut up’: First Nations woman crowned Mrs. Universe urges Canadians to vote for new PM

When entered Miss Universe — her first pageant — she was met with jeers like “What will her talent be? Drinking Lysol?” The sexual abuse survivor won second runner-up and silenced her critics. Now, five years later, the Edmonton-born Enoch Cree woman is — the first Canadian and first First Nations woman to win the title of an international pageant that judges contestants on their advocacy record rather than their bikini catwalk (though they only qualify if they’re married). The 25-year-old was crowned in Minsk, Belarus, this weekend. She spoke with the National Post’s Sarah Boesveld.

Q Your win comes amidst a federal election, the first real conversation Canada has had about murdered and missing indigenous women and not long after Idle No More. Do you link the attention you’re getting with what some might call a wave of momentum on these issues?

Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty ImagesSergei Gapon/AFP/Getty ImagesMrs. Canada Ashley Burnham being crowned Mrs. Universe in Minsk on August 29, 2015.

A I’m not going to lie, I was hoping I’d win, so I’d be able to address all these issues. Obviously it was a plan of mine if I did win, that I’d be able to use my voice to bring attention to all these things affecting First Nations people and I wasn’t sure how much attention I would get from competing in this pageant. If I was just still a university student, I didn’t do any pageants or I wasn’t an actor, no one would listen to what I have to say about murdered and missing aboriginal women. They wouldn’t care. People don’t expect a pageant girl to go out and say really crazy things right off the bat. They probably just expected me to have a title and be pretty and that’s it: be pretty and shut up. But I’m not going to shut up.

Q One of your first moves Monday was to encourage First Nations people to vote in this election and elect a new prime minister. People don’t expect that from a beauty queen.

A Some people are like ‘Oh my god, your first day and you’re being so political.’ Some people are really taken by it. The ignorant had a lot of things to say about it. But I’ve got more supporters than anything, because it’s something that needs to be addressed and needs to be talked about.

Q Why do we need a new prime minister?

A First Nations people are always put on the back burner. Our issues are never important. I’ve talked to a few politicians and they’ve all said that to me.

Q Politicians of all political stripes?

A A few of them have said that to me. It drives me crazy because we are the first people of Canada. We are as important as anyone else.

Q I see your mom is also a beauty queen.

A Yeah! Actually, she was inspired by me. She’s been through everything I’ve been through with the abuse — she’s personally been through more. She’s a very strong woman: She battled cancer, she lost my baby sister and she used to be 300 lbs and she lost a lot of weight healthfully. She wanted to do something for herself to make her feel better about herself because she’s been through so much hell.

Related‘I think my culture saved me’ after abuse: ’s Ashley Burnham after winning Mrs. Universe

Q A lot of people have qualified their congratulations by saying “I’m not a fan of pageants, but…”

A I was watching an interview out of Edmonton and they were talking about me — one girl was really praising me and the two other girls were saying they don’t like when girls are judged, but they were judging me and the pageant. This pageant is much different from Miss Universe: We are not judged in swimsuits, we are not physically judged on our appearance. Even the whole final night when we wear an evening gown, the winner is already pre-chosen.

Q But come on — you’re beautiful. You don’t get judged at all on looks?

A For the pageant? No. A lot of the girls … I don’t want to make this sound bad, but if you look up the girls who competed, you’ll see physical appearance doesn’t matter.

Maxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty ImagesMaxim Malinovsky/AFP/Getty ImagesMrs. Canada Ashley Burnham celebrates after being crowned Mrs. Universe during the Mrs. Universe 2015 pageant final in Minsk on August 29, 2015.

Q The whole ‘Mrs. Universe’ thing sounds kind of retrograde on the face of it.

A Well, it’s funny because I didn’t think a lot of people were going to care that I’m in a Mrs. Pageant. But I’m sorry! I fell in love with someone and got married! A friend showed me this pageant — at first I said ‘No way,’ but I looked into it and went for it. My mom won Mrs. North America and she said it’s completely different — all the girls make friends, they don’t try to sabotage you.

I was watching an interview out of Edmonton and they were talking about me — one girl was really praising me and the two other girls were saying they don’t like when girls are judged, but they were judging me and the pageant

Q You signed on as well because of its mandate to raise awareness about domestic violence. But your win has also been upheld as something that could help battle racism against aboriginal people in Canada. Did that surprise you?

A A lot of people are praising me, like ‘Yes, we’re finally being recognized for who we are.’ A lot of people don’t expect me to be up there and have a title because I’m First Nations. That’s how stereotypical society is and how racist it can be. I’m still experiencing some of that racism on some of my posts — some people are saying ‘I’m not a real Canadian,’ which is silly because if anything, I’m a real Canadian.

Q If you could have represented the First Nations community in your title, would you have?

A Oh hell yeah. It just sounds better. Or “Mrs. Indigenous Universe.” That’d be something really cool.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

National Post

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