Massey Whiteknife is sitting at his friend Skylar's table. In front of him is an array of makeup and clothing in preparation for his transformation. Next to Whiteknife sits Darrin Hagen, Edmonton's most famous drag queen.
"Darling, you use so much more powder than I used too," Hagen said.
"That's because I'm not a drag queen," Whiteknife responds with a little bit of a bristle in his voice.
It would be several more hours until Whiteknife puts on his wig, dissociates, and becomes the other side of his spirit—recording artist Iceis Rain.
Massey Whiteknife is a two-spirit aboriginal man who resides in Fort McKay, a reservation just outside of McMurray. Like the majority of the people who live in Fort Mac and the surrounding area, he works in the oil patch. After working in the oil field for several years Whiteknife wanted to work for himself. So he started a company named Iceis Safety which focuses upon safety consulting and supply. It was named after the other side of his spirit, 18-year-old female singer Iceis Rain. The concept of two-spiritedness is derived from when an aboriginal person feels the spirit of both genders inside of them. In aboriginal culture is was a valued position, one that often was paired with shamanic duties.
With Iceis Safety, Whiteknife has built himself up into a multi-millionaire from the ground. When he first started the company, Whiteknife was told that an openly gay man could never make it in the usually burly oil industry, but he defied the odds, and then some—a feat that's owed, in no small way, to Iceis Rain.
I wanted to go up to Fort McMurray and meet Iceis and Massey myself so I could understand the nature of being two spirit and meet both spirits that reside in this one extremely successful man.
I got that opportunity when I was invited to travel up to Fort McMurray and meet Whiteknife (and Iceis) by Darrin Hagen, a well-known Edmonton drag queen and author, and the crew of Open Sky Pictures who were on their way up to film an episode of their show Queer Places. So at six in the morning that Saturday we loaded up into the car of Frederick Kroetschs, the videographer on the project, and headed towards Highway 63, the highway of death.
With a Zoo York jacket and a well-groomed goatee, I had no idea this was the infamous drag queen I was meeting. The minute he started talking, however, I knew right away that this was the host of the show. I asked him what his drag name used to be.
"Gloria Hole, honey," he said laughing. "I earned it the old fashioned way." Even without his makeup, Hagen still delivered a brassy laugh befitting a drag queen.
When we arrived at Whiteknife's house, he was prepping his truck to deliver a load of toilet paper to a nearby camp site. When Whiteknife came out as openly gay, and people discovered Iceis, at her anti-bullying drag show, he had several people stop doing business with his company.
"It was a letdown, but it was also a risk that I had to take," explained Whiteknife in his office, the walls of which are punctuated with awards. "How are we ever going to move forward if someone doesn't step up and try to change the conversation."
After the positive press from the show, he gained ten new customers.
Once he'd made his delivery, Massey could tell that four of us wanted to meet Iceis. But for that to happen, Whiteknife had to get ready. So he got his makeup and clothes and we hopped in his truck and headed to his friend Skylar's condo.
Earlier, I had noticed a significant difference in the way that both Whiteknife and Hagen talked about their other personas. While Hagen talks about himself and Gloria in an inclusive way, using "we" or "I," Whiteknife talked about Iceis in the third person, using "she." Whiteknife said that this was because he was two spirit, and treated the two personas as separate but equal parties. When Whiteknife was younger he went to one of his elders with the problem that he felt like two people. They told him that he was two spirit and I asked him about the concept. It was something I was having a hard time understanding up to this point.
"I think two spirited for me is that you have two spirits in you. I think everyone else does as well," Whiteknife explained. "Being accepting of your two spirits means that you are accepting both sides of yourself, your femininity and your masculinity.
"So, for me, I think that I am two spirited and that I was blessed by the creator and by my ancestors to have the gifts that I'm able to accept my two spirits."
Whiteknife told me about the extreme trauma he suffered through as a child, something I promised I wouldn't talk about in detail—but I can say it was abuse of both a sexual and emotional nature. Because of this, Whiteknife lives with Dissociative Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Dissociative Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can manifest itself in the sufferer being able to dissociate from reality—meaning that they can remove themselves from their body. It is a triggerable illness. For a long time, his trigger was the smell of grass—something extremely common in Alberta. Whiteknife has learned to control his trigger in order to become Iceis Rain.
The relationship between Iceis and Whiteknife is mutually beneficial. The two personas made a promise to each other early on, in that Iceis will make Whiteknife strong and confident and in turn he will help her achieve her musical dreams. It was a deal they were both able to keep: Whiteknife gained success with Iceis Safety and, in the last few years, Iceis Rain's recording career started taking off.
She first gained prominence on the acclaimed Canadian documentary Oil Sands Karaoke, and she has since released her first album. The album was nominated for both Best New Artist and Best Rock CD at the 2014 Aboriginal People's Choice Music Awards where she also performed "The Queen," the title track of her album. Together, the two run a successful anti-bullying non-profit organization.
All is not perfect for the two, however. Whiteknife spoke of the extreme loneliness that comes with having two sides to one person, and how it can make holding a stable relationship extremely difficult.
There seems to be an uneven balance when it comes to who bears the brunt of the loneliness. The soft-spoken and submissive Whiteknife seems to carry the weight and the confident Iceis is typically surrounded by friends. "A queen has to have a court to hold," Hagen told me.
"I am the one that gets the loneliest. Iceis Rain, she doesn't get lonely, she doesn't really get that emotional, she's very driven because she is very young," Whiteknife said. "She only turned 18 recently, so she's in a stage right now of her life that she wants to get back that creativity that she had when she was a child, when she was not even created yet.
"When she was a part of my soul—my spirit—screaming to get out."
Our conversation ended when we arrived at the condo. But it wasn't yet time to met Iceis. What I never realized about a man getting dressed up as a woman was the sheer amount of work that goes into it. It takes a long time, and for the next two to three hours, Whiteknife diligently put on makeup and got dressed.
Then the moment happened: Whiteknife, standing over seven feet in his boots and plaid skirt, grabbed the wig from Skylar. He saw how he was being watched with baited breath.
"It's not like I turn into a monster, you guys," he said and flipped his hair back.
And there was Iceis.
She was just as Massey had described. She was lovely and confident, and had an extremely quick wit. While she was picking out her outfit, Hagen asked her about the struggle between Iceis and Whiteknife.
"I'm scared that if I do want to transition and become Iceis full time, is it too late, because I will be an 18-year-old in a 36-year-old's body," she said. "Would that ruin Iceis Safety and the company that Massey built? On the other side, it would be how would Iceis Rain survive if Massey didn't exist. Massey created me.
"How would I be able to live with myself if I defeated him?"
Everything seemed to stop at this moment. The subject of becoming one of the personalities full time was one that hadn't been broached, and the bluntness in which Iceis spoke of the notion had taken us all by shock. Finally, the silence was broken by Kroetschs, the videographer for Queer Places.
"Can I ask one question? Would that be like killing a person? Or is that a stupid question?"
There was a long silence in the room.
"No. That's my biggest question I have. I think it would be like I decided to do that. I can't even say it," she paused, "but yet I want it.
"I don't know. Would it be accepted by my friends? I don't think that Massey would exist anymore; he's just been through so much. When I turned 35 last year, that's when I really started to think about Iceis Rain taking over. So I have been talking to counsellors about it and wondering if Iceis did take over full time, maybe Massey would die at 35."
With that she did up her final bootstrap and told us it was time to go to Bailey's Pub for some karaoke. While there, we got so see Iceis in all of her glory. She was the queen and Bailey's was her court. The moment we walked in she was approached by a woman originally from the Maritimes, who had seen Oil Sands Karaoke and hugged her. She was surrounded by friends all night. She even got up and was able to sing her own song at karaoke. She got easily the most applause of the evening.
When we got back from karaoke, Hagen and I went out for a nicotine nightcap. While we were lighting up, I asked him a question.
"Darrin, do you think that they will be OK?"
He lit his cigarette.
"Oh, darling," he said. "She's going to be just fine."
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