June 4, 2018

Queen of the Oil Patch: Portrait of a different, ace conqueror

John Doyle/ The Globe and Mail

A lot of Canadian-made reality-TV is unwatchable. This one isn’t.

Queen of the Oil Patch (Tuesday, APTN at 10:30 p.m.) presents a Canada that is simultaneously unrecognizable and familiar.

“Hewers of wood and drawers of water.” Yeah, that’s still us to a good extent. The disparaging shorthand for Canada as a country obdurately dependent on natural resources might not be in vogue these days, but it applies. The federal government buying an oil pipeline is the defining story of this year so far.

At the centre of the series is one Alberta business person. That’s Massey Whiteknife, an Indigenous entrepreneur from the Mikisew Cree First Nation who built successful companies in Fort McMurray, a place we are made to believe is the toughest town in Canada. It’s where Whiteknife succeeded with ICEIS Safety Consulting. Thing is, the company is named after the owner’s drag-queen alter ego.

Whiteknife is a formidable character, ideal for the format of reality TV. Tough, articulate, charismatic and passionate, he’s got a lot of irons in the fire. A fierce advocate for his Indigenous community, he has a continuing anti-bullying campaign and his company’s “Get Ready” program aims to help aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people with pre-employment training, career placement, coaching and mentoring to get their careers started.

On the one hand, Whiteknife is a very recognizable type. He’s a guy in a parka driving a pickup truck in Fort McMurray, worried about keeping his business going in the battered oil-patch economy. Those businesses he launched, after many false starts, flourished and then suffered. The drop in the price of oil and the fires in Fort McMurray almost crippled his companies. Contracts dried up. In dealing with a tough year, Whiteknife made a decision. He was going to embrace his other spirit. That would allow him to conquer everything.

We meet him in the bath as he’s Massey, shaving his legs. Then he’s Iceis Rain, a “sexy, aggressive, dominating woman” as he describes her. His status is what he decides it is, he makes clear. “I don’t wanna say that I’m transgender or a drag queen or a crossdresser, or I’m gay. Because I’m not. I’m two-spirited. I’m a male and a female.”

Over a year, he plans to transition into Iceis Rain. “That would be like a two-spirited female,” is his own conclusion. People tell him he’s crazy and he admits to being scared. His mom is seen telling him that she doesn’t want him to get any surgery. She’s scared for him, too.

He knows all about the being-scared part already. This is one resilient person. And his tactic for changing and surviving is radical.

There is the matter of clothes and toning his body to fully become that female spirit who is in charge of sales and strategy for Whiteknife’s company. “I need to feminize my body more,” he says while shopping for vitamins and supplements and clothes. But he does go out for a final night of being outrageously feminine and flirty in a bar before he settles into his role as a slick, professional sales executive.

In the second of the half-hour programs, he’s back in the tiny community of Fort Chipewyan, where he was raised. He talks without anger about a childhood being bullied and scorned. In a chat with his mom, he decides that she doesn’t really know what “two-spirited” means, but she supports him and that’s all fine. Also, people who bullied him now shake his hand and congratulate him. At the same time, he gets the details about one member of his extended family, a teenage girl who took her own life, and the negative forces inside the community hit him like a terrifying blast of cold air.

“I want to be happy,” he tells his mom. Things are left unsaid, but soon, he’s back in Fort McMurray giving a talk at a local school about “Surviving Homophobia and Building Community.” He’s unstoppable. You believe he can conquer anything.

A lot of Canadian-made reality TV is unwatchable because it’s pointless and usually a second-rate copy of an original. Queen of the Oil Patch is, in contrast, truly distinct, about a true original. And truly inspiring. This is wonderful TV.