June 2, 2018

APTN’s Queen of the Oil Patch celebrates two-spirit life in the macho north

Fish Griwkowsky/ Edmonton Journal 

A compelling new documentary series tells the story of one man with two spirits — Massey Whiteknife and Iceis Rain.

Whiteknife — a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and a Fort McKay resident — is a successful CEO and philanthropist with an occupational health and safety firm in northern Alberta. Outside the serious job, he’s separately known as Iceis Rain: drag queen, pop singer and anti-bullying advocate.

Now, in the new, eight-part series Queen of the Oil Patch (premiering at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday on APTN), the two-spirit entrepreneur explores his personal history and cultural identity while reinventing his career, post economic slowdown. This includes Whiteknife’s desire to make the effervescent Rain the public face of his company within a conservative business environment … and perhaps take the dominant role in his life overall.

“That’s one of the storylines — am I going to transition? Stay tuned, right?” Whiteknife says with a laugh.

Neil Grahn is one of the show’s producers and directors on this Great Pacific Media project. The Métis, a former Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie member, explains: “It’s about an amazing person in a harsh land, not only surviving but thriving.”

“I always will say I am two spirited,” says Whiteknife, using the term in Indigenous culture referring to a person with both a masculine and feminine spirit, and can include sexual, gender and/or spiritual identity.

“That’s why we went on this journey as well, to find out what other people meant by two spirited. For me, I believe you embrace your femininity and your masculinity that everybody has inside us.”

Sexually abused as a child and bullied as a teen, Whiteknife suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, finding solace in his alter ego. In the series, both speak of each other in the second person, agreeing Rain has more confidence, sexiness and sense of self-worth.

But Whiteknife’s biggest struggle is wanting to surgically transition into a woman — namely Rain — which his family tries to support, but doesn’t necessarily understand. The footage with Massey and his mother is open, honest and wonderful.

In one episode, Rain — who always “felt like a butterfly” — gets to do fancy dancing at a two-spirit powpow in Winnipeg. Whiteknife felt of the opportunity: “This must be divine intervention.”

Grahn says: “It’s a beautiful scene. You ask, what’s our story about? It’s about seeking community and we find it there. It’s amazing.”

Through Whiteknife’s eyes, the series also examines queer life in the oil patch — like any, a complicated place with simultaneous contradictory truths.

The director-producer was pleased to see a rainbow crosswalk in Fort McMurray, but some local Pride organizers hesitated to let the film crew follow Whiteknife with cameras during the event for fear of outing people.

“We get it,” says Grahn. “It’s still not a total rainbow world.”

But Whiteknife notes: “There’s a big gay community here. Unfortunately, the majority I would say are in the closet. I meet people through Grindr, Plenty of Fish (apps), but they’re in the closet because they’re scared of their work.

“It’s a male-dominated community. If you’re in the trades or heavy equipment, it’s locker-room talk — they make fun. We tease each other, you know — ‘little faggot.’ You have to have thick skin.

“But,” he notes, “it’s actually very accepting. But some people are very sensitive to that so they’re like, ‘Oh, God, I’m never going to come out.’”

Whiteknife points out the camps supply condoms, and that social change is inevitable.

“I just try to show everybody, calm down — it’s 2018. If I can dress as a woman and go to the grocery store and nobody bats an eye, I’m sure you as a good-looking male being with another guy, nobody’s going to say anything.”

In his old town of Fort Chipewyan, former bullies came out and took his safety program. “It was emotional for me. These are the people who used to call me ‘fag’ up and down the road. And here they are, accepting me, asking for Iceis Rain.”

As far as his motivation for wanting to fully transition goes, “For me it’s about sex — I want to have lots and lots of sex,” Whiteknife laughs. “I’m just kidding. My decisions are just based on my feelings about who I know I am, who I think I always knew I was, even as a child.

“Growing up it was so hard — being bullied because of my wiggle, not even coming out of the closet. Being beaten up or my head put in the toilet at school, just because of my femininity.

“I was being sexually abused from the age of four years old. I didn’t get to lose my virginity like the ordinary person. It was taken from me.

“I’m trying to find out who I am, but I’m also questioning, was I born straight? Did this person turn me gay? Am I going to hell because of what the Bible says?

“There’s so many things I question. The reason I did the show is I feel like a lot of us ask ourselves these questions. I want to put it out to show everybody that you’re not alone, especially with First Nations, where one in three have been abused.

“There’s so many of my people under addiction or suicide, because they have nobody to talk to because of the shame.

“I want to let people know, it gets better — you just have to keep fighting.”

Whiteknife says no matter what happens, he’ll always be two spirit, first and foremost. “Hormones, getting breast implants, augmentation — I don’t then say, ‘I’m a woman.’ I’m two spirited. That’s what I want people to realize. You don’t need to label yourself, and if you do, you pick what you want to be and be comfortable with that.”

Whiteknife laughs at first at the idea the show will force him into behaving more responsibly. But he admits, “I did grow up a lot from the show. I love going to powwows. I have more family time now with my mom. I want to be a good role model not just for the gay community but for the Aboriginal community.”

As for Grahn, his motivation to help tell this story is simple. “I just want to have one gay or gender-questioning kid in some First Nation somewhere in Canada that sees this, sees how Massey and Iceis are finding their way in life, and instead of killing themselves they say, ‘You know what? There’s a life ahead of me.’”

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