“It shouldn’t be dangerous to be a First Nations woman in this country,” said Ashley Callingbull-Burnham Wednesday afternoon.
Callingbull-Burnham is Mrs. Universe 2015, and the first Canadian and first Indigenous woman to hold the title, which is given to winners of Mrs. Universe, a pageant similar to Miss Universe, but for married women.
Callingbull-Burnham spoke at Fashion Speaks BC, a day of music, fashion and presentations at Thompson Rivers University to raise awareness and funds for missing and murdered aboriginal women.
According to a study by the RCMP, in November 2013 there were 105 unsolved cases of missing aboriginal women for over 30 days. There were also 120 unsolved homicides of aboriginal women between 1980 and 2012. A whopping 38 per cent of the unsolved missing cases and 30 per cent of said homicides are from British Columbia alone.
Among the many heart-wrenching stories told at the event was Callingbull-Burnham’s own report of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Her mother, Lisa Ground, who holds the title of Mrs. North America Globe Classic, also spoke briefly at the event, and both walked in the fashion show. Musical acts included Kasp, Young Medicine, Enter Tribal and Kelly Derrickson.
Butterflies in Spirit, a dance troupe made up of family members of missing and murdered aboriginal women, performed following Callingbull-Burnham’s talk. Lorelei Williams, the group’s founder, spoke about an aunt who has been missing since the 70s, another aunt who was pushed out a window by her ex-boyfriend, a cousin whose DNA was found on Robert Pickton’s farm and another cousin who was raped by a serial killer. The day was full of stories like these, told by family and friends of victims.
The event had a political tilt with Callingbull-Burnham criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper for not making the issue a priority. Callingbull-Burnham had previously criticized Harper in a tweet, and she stood by her actions.
“I feel like the government has failed us,” she said, urging the audience to vote him out of office. “It’s not just a First Nations problem. It’s a Canada problem.”
This sentiment was later echoed by Tracy Leost, a 16-year-old girl who ran 115 km to raise awareness for the cause.
Callingbull-Burnham called for a national inquiry and plugged Who Is She, a fundraising campaign by the Chiefs of Ontario assembly with the goal of conducting their own inquiry. She called on people to learn more and to donate by visiting WhoIsShe.ca.