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June 19, 2018

TV review: Queen Of The Oil Patch is a brilliant reality series


Rachna Raj Kaur/ NOW Toronto

APTN show about an Indigenous entrepreneur and drag queen in macho Fort McMurray deftly touches on difficult themes.

QUEEN OF THE OIL PATCH (Neil Grahn) airs on APTN on Tuesdays at 10:30 pm and streaming via aptn.ca. Rating: NNNN

A show about an Indigenous, gay multi-millionaire entrepreneur who is also a recording artist and drag queen is not what I would expect from a reality show set in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

But that’s the basis for APTN’s documentary series Queen Of The Oil Patch. Over eight episodes, Massey Whiteknife explores his identity and digs deep into how he wants to live as a two-spirited businessperson.

The first few minutes of episode one are pure camp: wide shots of construction sites, trucks, people shovelling dirt set to loud (and bad) rock music. Cut to Whiteknife shaving his legs in the bath with candles lit and relaxing to slow-tempo music: he cuts his leg and I laugh out loud.

But just as quickly, the layers of two-spirited Whiteknife are revealed. A member of Mikisew Cree First Nation, he owns a construction business and a safety training business, and his drag queen persona, Iceis Rain, is also a motivational speaker

Bring a serious tone and I’m hooked. Camp often seems like a trope in stories about gay characters, and while entertaining, it can also bore. Luckily that tone eventually takes a back seat. The seriousness of what Whiteknife is trying to achieve personally and professionally is a meaningful story that deserves an attentive audience.

In everything Whiteknife and Rain do, there is a commitment to community and investing in Indigenous people. He provides training and job counselling and she speaks about suicide prevention. Due to fallen oil prices and a devastating fire, his business drastically decreases, presenting an opportunity to start from scratch, perhaps more authentically.

In the first two episodes provided for review, we see Whiteknife decide that Rain should get involved with the business and have more of a life off stage. She has that stereotypically drag-queen sassiness and boldness, which Whiteknife lacks – and perhaps needs – in order to rebuild.

Whiteknife goes shopping with a friend for more professional, conservative work attire than Rain would usually wear. He talks with his mother and friends about embodying Iceis. Ultimately, these conversation shifts to talk of transition and surgery.

Whiteknife/Rain is surrounded by supportive friends and family, but how will the macho, gritty oil sands of Fort McMurray respond to a drag queen running the show? Will Rain be able to deliver what Whiteknife himself has been searching for, personally and professionally?

Whiteknife intersperses tense conversations with witty commentary, ensuring that history is included and feels palpable.

During a gravesite visit, Whiteknife shares stories about his Aunty Irene and the experiences of his mother and her siblings in the residential school system. In the next scene he’s at the grave of his grandmother, recalling a funny story. Next, he’s making a presentation interjected with jokes to people enrolled in his employee training program and talking about giving back to a community that belittled and ostracized him when he was growing up gay. Then, he’s sitting at the kitchen table of a friend, asking about her daughter who was being bullied and took her own life.

He is a complex and entertaining character undergoing a life transformation in a community reeling from a history of trauma brought on by colonization. That the producers are able to touch on difficult themes so deftly and brilliantly within the first two half-hour episodes make this series a must-watch.

That I have not previously watched APTN programming is a failure on my part. Queen Of The Oil Patch, produced by Métis director Neil Grahn, Kelly McClughan and Mark Miller, is a great entryway into the life of a man breaking down boundaries, but also an insightful look into a community unseen on mainstream TV.