Growing up in the tiny northern Alberta hamlet of Conklin, Massey Whiteknife was always a performer – he would sing and dance along with cassette tapes of 1980s pop stars Debbie Gibson and Tiffany in his basement. But he was bullied at school for being too feminine ("I couldn't hide my wiggle," he says), and was sexually abused and gang-raped as a teenager. As an adult, Mr. Whiteknife, 36, defies a long list of stereotypes. The Mikisew Cree First Nation member launched his Fort McMurray-area company ICEIS Safety a decade ago and has since become a pillar of the business and philanthropic community. Mr. Whiteknife is a gay man, but his other identity is Iceis Rain, a "two-spirited" recording artist who won't leave the house unless she's wearing six-inch stilettos. Beginning in January, Ms. Rain will take the helm of the company. The transition, and the reaction from the oil patch, will be recorded by a crew from Edmonton-based Open Sky Pictures for a reality show under development called Queen of the Oilsands.
You have been sexually abused and raped. You have been homeless. You struggled with substance abuse. You are a gay man in a sometimes macho industry. You have had a lot of things going against you. Yet you started this successful oil sands service company, are a key member of northern Alberta's business community and seem to be at peace with your past suffering. How did you get to this point?
I had to learn to believe in myself. I had to learn to love myself again. And I had to sacrifice a lot in order to get to where I am today. Some of the things that I did were I went to counselling to talk about the things that have happened in my past so I could learn to forgive but not forget. I also started to compartmentalize a lot of things that have happened in my past that I brought forward to use in my business. Say, for instance, getting to school every day. I used to have to take the bus if the bullies were on the road. And if they were on the bus, I would walk to school. Or if they were waiting on the road, I would take a short cut. From there, I realized that in business, if a door closes, you go through a window. And if the window isn't open, then you have to find another route.
In early 2016, you will begin living as Iceis Rain 24/7, while running your oil sands service business and pursuing a singing career, for a full 12 months. This is all going to be filmed for a reality show under development. Why did you make the decision to do this?
I believe that Iceis Rain has been in the shadow of Massey for 18 years now, and I think it's time that I let her be free and live her life, and she deserves a full year. I'm going to allow her to do that because it was her strength and it was her resilience that helped me to succeed in my business.
ICEIS Safety is an occupational health and safety consulting, training and staffing firm. Are you nervous about how your clients, primarily oil sands firms or Fort McMurray workers, will react to seeing Ms. Rain show up on site?
Yes, it is a concern for me. I believe that yes, we will probably have some companies that are not going to be supportive. They may think it might hurt their own company brand to be associated with Iceis Rain. But I truly believe that Canada is so accepting and Fort McMurray is one of the most accepting and diverse communities in Canada. I do believe that there are companies out there that will embrace Iceis Rain and will give her a chance. For my existing clients, I'm just lucky that I have signed contracts with them so there's really nothing they can do.
You donate blankets to homeless shelters at Christmas, hold an anti-bullying event every fall and fund organizations that typically don't get a lot of attention or donations. You are now looking to put your Get Ready Program – which helps aboriginal, Inuit and Métis people get into the oil and gas and construction industries – online. Why is it so important for you to help and give back to the community?
I've been there. I've been homeless, I've been in need and I've been broken. And I know how hard it is for these organizations to look at the youth who are wanting to do these events – or to become athletes, to become singers, to become dancers. And it breaks my heart to know that when an organization approaches me and we have a coffee or a conversation, and then they tell me "we just can't get the funding because a lot of funding goes to the more … prominent organizations out there." For me, I make it a point to fund or to sponsor people and organizations that I believe have heart and are trying their best to succeed. And I have been there – numerous times that I have failed and I have gotten up. For Iceis Rain, she wants to be a role model for the LGBT community and for the aboriginal community.
What is Iceis Rain's favourite song, and why?
I have two songs. One is a song that I wrote off my album called Baby's Lullaby. The reason why I love this song is that it was the first song that I wrote – I wrote it in 15 minutes. It's about my mother and myself, and I promised her that one day I would make it so she would be okay. That's actually a sentence in the song. I love that song because that's what started me to heal and to be creative again with my music. And it means the world to me because my mother and I have been a team ever since I came out when I was 18, and she is my biggest fan and my biggest supporter. And she takes Iceis Rain as her daughter. Another song that is my favourite song is a Whitney Houston song called I Look to You. It's a beautiful song because in times in our lives, we go through our ups and downs. And for me, I always look to the Creator for help, and he helps me. And I listen to that song every morning when I wake up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.