"Residential schools had a devastating impact on Callingbull and her family. The actor, beauty queen, influencer and September 2021 cover star speaks to fellow Cree David A. Robertson about facing — and overcoming — intergenerational trauma."
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GABOR JURINA.
"Ashley Callingbull wears many hats. She’s a beauty queen who was crowned Miss Canada in 2010 and Mrs. Universe in 2015. She’s an actor, playing Sheila Delaronde on the APTN drama Blackstone from 2011 to 2015. She’s an influencer with 1,000,000+ followers on her Instagram. She’s an advocate and a motivational speaker, giving talks on mental health, building self-confidence and her Indigenous culture. She’s a brand ambassador, most notably landing a deal with Nike in 2020. And she’s a survivor of physical, mental and sexual abuse.When Callingbull was five years old, she and her mother left their home in Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta for Maskwacis (formerly known as Hobbema) to live with her mother’s boyfriend. He had a “charming persona” that covered up the terrible things he did to people, describes Callingbull. The abuse started soon after the move. Her mother didn’t know about it because he threatened to kill Callingbull, or her mother, if she said anything. He told her that nobody would ever love or appreciate her (“anything to break me”), and she believed it.
She felt a pull to numb the pain with drugs and alcohol, but her kokum, Charlotte Callingbull, who had also been abused, urged her granddaughter to stay on the “red road” rather than put toxins in her body. In Indigenous communities, the red road is a path to wellness fostered by our connection to traditional ways of living, ceremony, all of our relations and Mother Earth. In Cree, the word for this is minopimatisiwin, or “the good life.” “That’s our strength,” emphasizes Callingbull. She also found healing in the sweat lodge, where she could cry and pray in safety, and by coming to an intimate understanding of intergenerational trauma.
Callingbull has been to hell and back, but she is living proof that trauma can be overcome. She speaks with confidence and heart, often sharing her message with a cocked eyebrow, even if tears are falling. She has no fear of vulnerability or of saying exactly what’s on her mind, even if it sets non-Indigenous people off. “I’m not speaking against Canadians; I’m speaking for Indigenous people,” she declares via Zoom from Florida, where she is staying with her fiancé, Wacey Rabbit, who plays centre for the Jacksonville Icemen hockey team. “A lot of Canadians don’t want to hear the truth, but truth is our power.”