A few years ago, Emma Morrison was just like any other 16-year-old from a small town. A member of Chapleau Cree First Nation in Ontario, she spent most of her time hunting, fishing and playing sports — until she joined the world of beauty pageantry.
Now 22, Morrison was crowned Miss World Canada on Sunday evening, making her the first Indigenous woman to hold the national title. She’ll advance to the international Miss World competition next year in Vietnam.
“It wasn’t about being the first Indigenous woman to hold this title,” Morrison told CBC News. “Of course that’s a high honour … but I wanted to open that door for other Indigenous peoples to walk through.”
Morrison’s first pageant was in the Miss North Ontario competition, where she was just one of three Indigenous contestants among 39 overall.
But the state of Indigenous representation in Canada’s beauty pageant scene has since improved, she said, noting that this year’s Miss North Ontario, Grace Webb, is a young woman from Dokis First Nation who was one of 10 Indigenous contestants in the 2022 event.
“I really do it for them, Indigenous youth, Indigenous little girls. Because I was once in their position,” Morrison said. She competes to show her six younger foster siblings that they can reach their full potential.
“It doesn’t have to be pageantry but it could be applying to university or stepping outside of your comfort zone, and it’s just important to be that positive example that your dreams too are in reach.”
Mentored by Mrs. Universe 2015, a ‘big sister’
Morrison might be the first Indigenous Miss World Canada, but she isn’t the first to ascend to the top of the beauty pageant world.
After winning Miss Teenage Canada in 2017, Morrison received a surprising social media friend request from Ashley Callingbull-Rabbit, who was the first Canadian and Indigenous woman to win Mrs. Universe in 2015.
Likening her to “a big sister,” Morrison said that Callingbull-Rabbit has become a mentor and a guide as she advances through her pageant career.
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“She too comes from a reserve and she is an example of, through passion and drive, you can achieve anything. So it’s been fantastic having her take me under her wing,” Morrison said.
Callingbull-Rabbit, in addition to Morrison, coaches a handful of other Indigenous beauty pageant contestants across Canada and the United States. She says she wishes she had someone to show her the ropes when she first started out.
“You can push someone in the right direction and give them all the tools, but it’s really up to them to make that dream come true, and [Emma] has,” Callingbull-Rabbit told CBC News.
“Being a representative — it’s not just being a face, and going around and waving and saying look who I am,” she added. “For me it’s about, what are you going to [do] with this platform, how are you going to use your voice and what kind of positive change are you going to create?”
Morrison, for her part, was tasked with developing a humanitarian project for the Miss World Canada’s main competitive event, Beauty With a Purpose.
Her winning effort, called Reconnecting with Ribbon Skirts, began after the preliminary finding of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the Kamloops residential school in 2021, inspiring her to reconnect with her culture.
“So far I have made 23 ribbon skirts for Indigenous women to feel beautifully empowered, and this is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to give Indigenous women a physical link to our culture, to remind them to stand strong and be proud of their cultural identity.”
She hopes to bring the initiative to the international stage when she competes at Miss World next year. As an Indigenous woman, she doesn’t have any hesitancy about representing Canada on the world stage — but she recognizes the responsibility that comes with her title, she said.
“I come from such a strong community of people. I’m coming from Chapleau Cree First Nation in Treaty Nine Mushkegowuk territory. And everybody in my community, my territory has been so incredibly supportive,” she said.
“It makes it easier knowing that I have this support, this backbone to help me move forward with this title.”