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Meet Emma Morrison, Canada’s First Indigenous Miss World Competitor

“Her story is already different because she’s made history.”
By Nick Dunne
Emma Morrison is crowned by Miss World Canada 2021 Jaime VanDenBerg. Morrison is the first Indigenous Miss World Canada. Emma Morrison is crowned by Miss World Canada 2021 Jaime VanDenBerg. Morrison is the first Indigenous Miss World Canada. (Photo: Peter Jung)

Emma Morrison stood before the judges, waiting calmly for her turn. After a month of modelling gowns, conducting preliminary interviews with judges and a fitness test of squats, pushups and planks, Morrison had made it to the final stage of Miss World Canada: a final question fielded by the judges to determine who would be crowned Miss World Canada and represent the nation at the international Miss World competition. In the past, she had struggled with the Q&A. But in that moment, she felt grounded. In her hand, Morrison, a member of Chapleau Cree First Nation, held a sprig of sage, a traditional medicine. “I spoke to Creator, saying: ‘Whatever you have planned for me, I surrender to that plan. If I’m meant to go onstage and completely bomb my question-and-answer, then, hey, I'm not supposed to win this year.’”

Her turn came, then the question: What would she say to the government about residential schools and the status of Indigenous peoples? “I spoke about the legacy and the impact that it left on my family and the rest of the First Nation communities,” Morrison says. “The feelings of residential school have always been really heavy in my family.” She had to confront these feelings to reconnect with her Indigenous identity. “It really sank in, because this is when I started asking questions. My family unsealed a lot more than what I had known in regards to the residential school.” But from that darkness came a need to act and speak up: “I said that we need to move forward with the 94 [Truth] calls to action. We all need to be a lot of voices on advocacy for Indigenous peoples.”

With that answer, Morrison secured Miss World Canada, the first Indigenous woman to do so in the pageant’s history. Morrison’s historic rise from the small northern town of Chapleau, Ont., to the international stage has been propelled by the strength gained from her personal journey of reconnection.

Growing up in a Chapleau, 800 kilometres north of Toronto, pageantry never crossed Morrison’s mind. She’s a small-town girl in an outdoorsy family “who spent a lot of time hunting and fishing,” she says. She was shy but sporty, playing basketball and volleyball in high school while working part-time at the town’s grocery store. But a representative for a local pageant reached out to her on Facebook in 2017 asking her to represent Chapleau. At first, she was skeptical.

“We grew up watching Honey BooBoo and Toddlers and Tiaras, so that was our idea of pageantry,” Morisson says. But some research soon dispelled the reality TV stereotypes. “Pageantry is so much more than what people think: you have to develop a platform, fundraise for charity and be an active member in your community to compete,” she explains. It turns out Morrison was a natural. She won Miss Teenage Northern Ontario in 2017, then Miss Teenage Ontario and Miss Teenage Canada in quick succession.

As rewarding as those experiences were, Morrison admits she has struggled with anxiety and insecurity as one of few non-white contestants. “I was in an area where I’m trying something new, on top of the fact there weren't a lot of people who looked like me,” she says. “I was nervous.” Of the 49 contestants in her first competition, just three others were Indigenous.

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But some words of encouragement from a trailblazer kept her strong. Ashley Callingbull, Canada’s first Mrs. Universe winner, reached out to Morisson to congratulate her on her win. “I told her: ‘Hey, if you ever need anything, I'm here. I just think it's so amazing what you're doing,’” she says. Callingbull, from Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, knew the weight of being an Indigenous woman in a space where “a lot of people don't even want you to be there.” When she started in pageantry in 2010, a Toronto newspaper wrote: “There's an Indigenous woman competing this year. I wonder what she's going to do for her talent? Is she going to chug Lysol or sign welfare checks with her toes?” Rather than receiving support, Callingbull says she was mocked by fellow contestants. But an unlikely call from a hero of hers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, “lifted my spirits and lit a fire under my ass,” and inspired her to continue fostering a sense of Indigenous sisterhood to others.

Like Callingbull, Morrison’s path to greater confidence and self-understanding has also been emotionally fraught. The 2021 discovery of residential school gravesites in Kamloops, B.C. “sparked something inside of me. I had so many different emotions,” Morrison says—shock, grief, anger. But learning about the tragedy motivated her to delve into Canada’s history, her own family history and her identity. Through TikTok tutorials, she learned sewing and beading methods to make her own ribbon skirts. “A little teaching I was taught right from my grandmother was that women's skirts symbolizes a teepee,” Morrison explains. “And that means that the woman, the people who wear the women's skirts are at the heart of the home.”

Morrison poses in one of her rainbow ribbon skirts. Morrison poses in one of her rainbow ribbon skirts. (Photo: Emma Morrison)

The latter has since become her personal charitable initiative: She’s set to personally design, sew and donate 50 ribbon skirts for women across the country. “Whenever I wear ribbon skirts, I get feelings of connection and resiliency and celebration,” she says, “and I wanted to share these feelings with other Indigenous women.”

Morrison’s path of reconnection turned a source of insecurity into a source of strength, and her newfound confidence was a key to her recent national victory. Michelle Weswaldi, executive director of Pageant Group Canada, witnessed Morrison’s blossoming from Miss Teenage Canada 2017. “Seeing her at the teenage pageant versus this one was almost night and day,” says Weswaldi. “I don't even know if she had, at that point, come to appreciate her culture and knowing where she came from.” Since then, “she has grown into this proud Indigenous woman, and she can be that inspiration to all of those girls that are just like her.”

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Preparation for Miss World, which will take place this December, starts soon. She’ll have to continue with her community and charity work, start training for the sports competition and prepare for the extensive interview stages of Miss World. And Morrison is already considered to be an early-frontrunner. “Her story is already different because she's made history,” Callingbull says. “On top of that, she has everything else. She has her culture to bring her strength. She knows what she's going to say and what she's going to stand for.”

As she prepares for the international stage, Morrison will continue to speak to youth, having already visited Dennis Franklin Cromarty and the Matawa Education Centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., which serve communities in the province’s far north. “Whenever I go to speak to other Indigenous students, I see a reflection of myself in them,” she says. “I talked about my journey coming from a small town, how I was able to open doors for myself by saying yes to the opportunities, although I was scared by possibly being the only Indigenous person in the room.”

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