On the evening of May 15, Grace Webb stood on the stage of Sudbury Secondary School’s auditorium, donning a glittering floor-length gown and a silken sash.
It was the third and final day of the Miss North Ontario pageant, an annual competition featuring young women from across the region vying for the title and the Crown. Webb, a 20-year-old law and justice student at Laurentian University, had never taken part in a pageant before.
She’d been preparing for this moment since February.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Webb. “There’s a lot of preparation and other behind-the-scenes stuff that people don’t really understand. And then especially mentally preparing for it, you really have to sit down and say, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter how I do.’ I’m going there for the experience'.”
The Miss North Ontario Regional Canada Pageant was started in 2006 by founder and director Cheryl Kozera. On its website, the pageant touts its goal of “empowering Nothern Ontario's young women to recognize and value their worth and potential.”
For Webb, it was all that and more.
“We’re standing there with our eyes shut, holding hands,” she said of that night on the stage. “And I took a deep breath and all I heard was ‘Miss Dokis First Nation.’ All I did was look in the crowd and I found my mom. I was in complete shock.”
Prior to her decision to sign up, Webb had her qualms about getting involved. Though she’d been modelling for almost a decade, she’d never considered taking part in a pageant.
“The stereotype of pageants people thinks it’s all about the outer beauty, how you look and stuff,” she said.
But on top of that, she said there was also a part of her that worried about how she would be received.
“Going into it as an Indigenous woman, I took a step back and I thought about it,” she said. “I was like, Ok, some girls might say some things. And if I win, they might, ‘Oh, of course, she’s Indigenous.’”
It was Kozera, the pagaent’s founder, who encouraged and eventually convinced her to register. Webb decided she wanted to give it a try.
She put her name down to take part in the pageant as Miss Dokis First Nation.
“That was pretty easy for me to decide, to be honest,” she said of her decision to represent that community.
Webb grew up in Manitoulin and moved to Sudbury in fourth grade. Though she never lived there, she said her connection to Dokis First Nation, which is located along the French River just southwest of Lake Nipissing, was always an important part of her identity.
“My mom grew up in an era where she saw there was stigma attached to Indigenous people,” said Webb. “We were very stereotyped. Both my great-grandmothers attended residential schools. So growing up, my mom always pushed me, like, you gotta stay connected to your culture, this is who you are, embrace it no matter what anyone else says. You have to be proud of who you are.”
Her pride in her community and identity has extended throughout her life. In high school, she modelled for Material Kwe, a wearable art series by Anishinabekwe artist Celeste Pedri-Spade. The design she wore was a tribute to Indigenous women land defenders who protest environmental destruction caused by pipelines.
Her community has been eager to support her campaign, with several Dokis businesses offering sponsorships and donations.
“I’ve always been connected with my reserve and the people there are so supportive of me,” said Webb. “They’ve been very involved and it was just a no-brainer for me to represent them. I’m proud to say I’m from there.”
Despite her earlier hesitation, she said her experience with the Miss North Ontario pageant had a significant positive impact on her confidence and self-esteem.
Part of that came from the camaraderie she found with the other girls, many of whom quickly became friends.
“Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “Being around the other girls, we were so supportive of each other and nobody talked negative. We were all cheering each other on onstage.”
It was an experience she hadn’t expected when she put her name down as a delegate.
“It made me feel so empowered, as an Indigenous woman,” she said. “It made me feel like I can achieve anything and everything I put my mind to. And that was hard for me to come to because being told you won’t do anything, Oh, you’re an Indigenous woman, you’ll be nothing. Going from that to how I feel now … from this pageant, I learned how to get to that step in my life.”
During her one-year reign as Miss North Ontario, Webb will be focusing on her platform to advocate for clean drinking water on First Nations reserves, dozens of which currently have long-term water advisories in place.
At the same time, she also hopes to encourage other Indigenous women to take risks and embrace their inner beauty.
“I would recommend (the pageant) to every girl, even if you struggle with self-confidence, even if you don't think you can do it,” she said.
“My message to young Indigenous women is that, although we do have this stereotype linked to us, this stigma, forget about it. Just be who you want to be and go out and promote whatever you want to do. Go and show who you are. Embrace it and don’t hold back.”
The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.
Mia Jensen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star