TORONTO — Anthony Johnson and James Mokakis hoped being the first Indigenous, two-spirit couple to compete on The Amazing Race Canada would give them a national platform to highlight issues close to their hearts.
Over weeks of intense challenges that saw them criss-cross the country, the pair donned outfits meant to call attention to specific topics: handmade red skirts and a bandana for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, blue shirts emblazoned with “Water Is Life” to show the cultural and ceremonial importance of water.
Now that they’ve been crowned the winners, the married couple — who identify as two-spirit, a term used by some Indigenous peoples to describe their gender, sexual and spiritual identity — said they want to use their fame to continue fundraising for a cultural healing centre in Alberta’s Kehewin Cree Nation.
But first, they want to celebrate their groundbreaking victory, get some sleep and maybe go on vacation, they said Tuesday in an interview just hours before the show’s finale was set to air.
“We want a week on the beach somewhere hot because we had no summer. We need a tan,” Mokakis said with a laugh.
The show’s seventh season, which hit the airwaves in July but was filmed earlier this year, started in Toronto and ended in central Ontario’s Muskoka region. Each episode saw the teams face off in challenges, such as a mock press conference or a game of sledge hockey.
Mokakis, a family physician originally from the Saddle Creek Cree Nation in Alberta, and Johnson, a project consultant born in Arizona’s Navajo Nation, said it was important for them to use the spotlight to raise awareness.
“Representing missing and murdered Indigenous women was important because it happens, it happens and people don’t talk about it,” Johnson said.
Many Indigenous communities were matriarchal before colonization and the couple felt it was important to show support for the women leaders in their community, Mokakis added.
They also wanted to show two-spirit and transgender youth “that it’s OK to be different,” he said.
“If there’s two guys wearing a dress, they want to express their identity differently than the norm, then why does that matter? How is it hurting somebody else?” Mokakis said.
“Because I have a large transgender population in my medical practice and I see the results of social isolation, it sends a strong message when their doctor is saying that…and we wanted to do that, we thought it was really important.”
Some moments were particularly emotional for the pair, including a challenge that Mokakis said stirred up intergenerational trauma and led him to tears.
While Mokakis did not go to a residential school, many others in his family did, including his father, who was the first to later attend an integrated school with French-speaking children, he said. Every day, his father faced slurs and violence, and Mokakis said a challenge in which he was forced to speak French brought up those family memories.
Other moments stood out for more pleasant reasons. While racing to get on a plane in Kamloops, B.C., the two — who were wearing their red skirts — made eye contact with an Indigenous baggage handler, who broke into a huge smile, Johnson recalled.
When the race brought them to Calgary Pride, they saw someone from the Blackfoot Nation had made dolls of them, a sign of honour, he said.
The pair said they have received many personal messages from viewers happy to see more diversity in television. “That was one of the main reasons why we chose to go on the show is to demonstrate that publicly,” said Mokakis.
The fact that their participation has attracted so much attention suggests more can be done to ensure a broader representation of voices in media, he said, noting they are the second Indigenous couple to compete in the show.
The couple has faced some criticism for their advocacy on the show, however, with some accusing them of making the program too political.
The fact is, who they are is political by nature, Johnson said. “By being a queer person, by being a person of colour, by being an American-Canadian couple…”
“…By being Indigenous born with an Indian status number…” Mokakis added.
“…By default your existence is political and so we’re not doing anything different that what we do in our lives on a daily basis,” Johnson continued.
“So any naysayers, I’m happy, because that means they’re being educated, that means they’re being exposed, that means they’re listening to something that we have to say and whether or not they agree with it is not my concern.”
The win comes with a $250,000 prize, a trip for two around the world, and two new vehicles.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press