Where are they now?
Ambassador at large
The reigning Mrs. Canada Globe, Lorelei Higgins is a grassroots diplomat with an Indigenous heritage and a Rotary pedigree
In November 2020, Lorelei Higgins was in Las Vegas preparing to compete in the Mrs. Canada Globe pageant. At a pre-event briefing, a high-and-mighty pageant official gave the contestants some very specific instructions: "I don't want any of you to go up there and talk about curing cancer or world peace, because none of you are ever going to do that."
Higgins' reaction? "Excuse me. I came here to actually, like, do that."
Which is exactly what the mother of two from Calgary, Alberta, did. At age 39, she took the stage, spoke about world peace, and won the pageant, becoming the reigning Mrs. Canada Globe, a platform she uses to promote peacemaking as a philosophy of life, all while celebrating her Indigenous heritage in a country undergoing a challenging reconciliation with its First Nations people.
What that pageant official hadn't known was that when it came to the art of peace, Higgins — a Rotary Peace Fellow, a consultant with Mediators Beyond Borders International, an ambassador for the Institute for Economics and Peace, and, at the time, a strategist with the city of Calgary's Indigenous Relations office — possessed an expertise on the subject acquired across decades.
Her journey started in high school in Spruce Grove, Alberta, just west of Edmonton. She had wanted to spend more time studying drama, which meant taking correspondence courses to get some of her other classes out of the way. As Higgins tells the story, her correspondence teacher contacted her and said, "'You know, you're a really good student. My husband is in Rotary. Have you ever thought of being an exchange student?'"
Higgins wondered, "What is Rotary?"
Once that question was resolved, Higgins sat for her Rotary Youth Exchange interview. She drew laughs with her response to the question about where she'd like to study. "I said, 'I've never even been on an airplane,'" Higgins recalls. "'What's the farthest I can go?' I got selected, and I picked South Africa because it was one of the farthest options."
Her host family was headed by the newly appointed Belgian consul general in Johannesburg. She studied French to better communicate with her host family, and they helped one another adjust to South Africa.
Her outsider status, says Higgins, did help bring her school community together. This was in 1998, in the early years after apartheid had ended. She went to an all-girls school attended by white and Black students, who mostly stayed separate. Higgins set about to change that.
"I would have get-togethers, and I would invite the Afrikaner girls, I'd invite the Zulu girls, I'd invite the British girls," says Higgins, who for the last year and a half has served as the community lead on the city of Calgary's anti-racism team. "Those skills have transferred to today, where, whether I'm working on a project in the addiction sector or in our anti-racism work, I can kind of invite everybody to the table."
Back in Spruce Grove after her year abroad, Higgins couldn't wait to rejoin the bigger world. "Growing up, I never belonged," she says. "I wanted to be in the world, but I didn't know how to get there."
In her last year at the University of Alberta, where she earned a bachelor's in political science and French, Higgins learned of the new Rotary Peace Fellows program. She saw it as her path to graduate studies, but unfortunately didn't make the cut. She ended up landing an internship in Bolivia with Canada's international affairs department. "So," Higgins says, "the Rotary dream went to the back burner a bit."
She spent the next five years working in development, first for the Canadian government and then for one of its partner nongovernmental organizations. She ticks off the places where she worked: Bolivia, Guyana, Dominica, Finland, Poland, Austria, Portugal, Brazil, India. Her goal was not to become a diplomat but to connect with local communities, to do the work on the ground. From that perspective she saw the mistakes that can be made out of arrogance or ignorance.
"At one point in northern India, a major aid organization came and dropped off hundreds of toilets," she says. "And the Indian population was like, 'We didn't ask for toilets.' So they became toilet chicken feeders."
When she was 27, Higgins returned to Canada and took a job developing addiction strategy for the city of Calgary. It was around this time that she met her biological father, learned about his Cree and Ojibwe heritage, and discovered that she is Métis — something she had always suspected and an identity she joyfully embraced.
Higgins again looked into a Rotary Peace Fellowship, but instead opted for an MBA from Royal Roads University in British Columbia. "That Rotary ship sort of sailed, but I never really lost hope that it would happen one day," she says. "And in 2019, 20 years after I got back from South Africa, I finally became a Rotary Peace Fellow." She was accepted into the peace and conflict resolution program at the Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, which was a better fit for a midcareer professional.
There she learned about one of Rotary's partners, the Institute for Economics and Peace, and its focus on Positive Peace. "I was in the middle of forming our Indigenous Relations office in Calgary," she says. "My idea was to take the Pillars of Positive Peace and put them in a municipal government context."
That approach was vital as the Black Lives Matter movement swept across Canada. Some Indigenous people in Calgary, while happy for the catalyst to fight racism, were upset they hadn't received the same support in their struggle for equality.
"There was a divide," says Higgins. "This is where Lorelei the peacebuilder asked: What can I do? Where can I use the Pillars of Positive Peace and my Rotary training?" That's when she made the move to Calgary's anti-racism program. "Instead of letting this splintering happen, I jumped in and was like, 'No, we're going to change this.' That is a complete peacebuilding approach."
And that poor pageant official? He had no idea what he was up against.
This story originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.