Interview With Ashley Callingbull, January 2012

Blackstone is a Gemini award-winning Canadian television series based on a fictitious Canadian First Nations reserve. It airs on the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) and features some of the best aboriginal actors in North America. The second season premiered last week.

Blackstone is part of the recent trend to portray the realities of reserve life and the heroic struggles of First Nations peoples to overcome personal demons and the after-effects of years of oppression. Cast member Ashley Callingbull is an international beauty pageant winner (including Miss Canada 2010), an actress, singer, children’s advocate, motivational speaker, and the niece of the late famed Cree actor Gordon Tootoosis, with whom she had the opportunity to work in the first season of Blackstone. Recently Ashley took the time to answer some of Wanda Waterman’s questions about her personal struggles, her healing process, and her Blackstone character Sheila Delaronde, a young woman caught in a Romeo-and-Juliet romance with a young man from a family on the outs with her own clan.

You’d think the life of a beauty queen/actress would be a lot cushier than that of Ashley Callingbull. A rigorous schedule of pageants, appearances, and academic work sometimes leaves little time for sleep, and on the set of Blackstone she’s often required to put on a brave face and keep on going in spite things like—well, hornet stings:

“One time Justin and me were walking to the set,” she recounts. “I was wearing sandals, and wardrobe had put me in high pink socks—which I guess is like a fashion mistake—but I kind of liked them, so I wanted to keep them. A hornet got attracted to my socks and got under my toe and stung me over and over again.

“I had to grab the hornet, and five seconds after that I felt the pain and couldn’t walk because my foot was so big and swollen. Justin had to carry me back. They told me I couldn’t drive because it was my right foot.” She adds sheepishly, “But I had to drive anyway, and when I was driving I kind of hit the fence.”

The first episode of Blackstone’s Season 2 aired last Tuesday, so now viewers know that it was Andy Fraser, the chief, who shot the stripper. We also know that Andy was responsible for the contaminated water supply (by virtue of a decision he made when serving a term as chief years ago). He’s trying to cover up both flubs; when it comes to the tainted water, he doesn’t even stop short of trying to bully a doctor into silence.

Unfortunately, sagas of corrupt chiefs who gain office by promising special favours to certain band members are all too common on a minority of reserves. Such chiefs quickly gather around themselves the right symbiosis of dishonest or weak council members to enable them to get away with murder—literally, in Andy’s case—while lining their pockets and boosting their power base.

Director Ron E. Scott has made a point of including accountability among the themes of the show. While colonialism has devastated First Nations individuals, families, and communities, there is an increasing perception among First Nations peoples of the need to take responsibility and to acknowledge that at least a few of the ongoing problems are self-generated.

“A lot of that is not because of other people,” says Ashley. “It’s because we go down the wrong paths. We get lost in the bad things that we’re doing, and it just gets worse. There’s no positive support system and if that’s not there, then we’re just going to drag ourselves down.”

She counts a lack of clear guidance as the most significant void in her early years. For this reason, she devotes a large portion of her time to speaking to children.

“When I was a child, I didn’t have anyone that was a role model for me,” she says. “I didn’t have anyone to tell me everything was going to be okay and to push me in the right direction. I felt like I had to rely on myself. I think it’s really important to give back to the children because they’re going to be our future leaders, and if you make a difference with them now they’re going to have a great future.”

Ashley knows first-hand the effect of social systems that fail to ensure the safety and well-being of children. A survivor of childhood sexual and physical abuse, she, together with her family, tried to bring the perpetrator to justice in spite of terrible opposition from the community in which they were living.

“When it happened to me it wasn’t even in my own community. This man had done the same thing to others, but they were living in fear and not saying anything. We had that whole community treating us badly because we weren’t from there, and we were being rude and mean, apparently, by going to court and trying to settle this.”

“Those were probably the worst years of my life,” Ashley says of both the abuse and the secondary trauma that came in its wake. “That’s something you don’t let go of, because you’re so young. You don’t know what’s wrong and what’s right.”

She entered counselling but gained little from it. “Therapy doesn’t help,” she says, “because they’re getting paid to listen to you, not to help you get better.”

Ashley discovered in dramatic play the healing direction she needed. “I find acting is a therapy for me. It’s definitely a different way of expressing myself and releasing all these emotions into a character. I found my true passion; I never feel more like myself than when I’m doing what I love. It’s a way of releasing the bad and letting in the good. I’m not hiding anymore.”

Another healing element was native spirituality. “My grandparents are very spiritual,” she says. “We lived a very traditional life and I think relying on my spiritual beliefs and going to sweat really helped me, because that’s who I am.”

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