Credit: Courtesy CTV, Francesca Roh/Xtra
Pop Culture
13 min

Meet the Two-Spirit couple competing to win ‘The Amazing Race Canada’

Anthony Johnson and James Makokis talk about the race, representation and each other

Married couple Anthony Johnson (Navajo) and James Makokis (Cree) quickly became fan favourites on the seventh season of The Amazing Race Canada for their charm, determination and occasional throwing of shade. They filmed their audition tape for the reality series while on a holiday in Costa Rica, and now, after 10 episodes, the Edmonton couple is one of three teams competing for $250,000 dollars, two vehicles and a trip around the world on the show’s finale Tuesday. Ahead of the broadcast, Johnson and Makokis talked to Xtra about their relationship with each other, the competition and Indigenous and Two-Spirit representation in the media.

Xtra: Can you take us back to when Amazing Race host Jon Montgomery announced that you were the first team to qualify for the finale?

Anthony Johnson (AJ): We were in Nova Scotia when we found out we were in the finale. We kind of knew we were in first place because we didn’t see any other teams throughout the day and it was so exciting.

James Makokis (JM): The cool thing is that, as we were getting to Luckett Vineyards, we looked into the sky and there were 14 eagles circling above us and we took that as a really good sign.

AJ: Eagles are important for us. And so to see eagles above the mat at the end of the leg, right before the finale, was a really sweet moment.

Xtra: Why did you decide to join the race?

AJ: We had always wanted to do The Amazing Race, we had all these videos [pretending we were on the show]. We were hiking in the Grand Canyon last spring and I was like, “Let’s run down the canyon and do our Amazing Race moment.” So it was something that was in the back of our minds.

JM: The theme of this year was “new beginnings,” and it was kind of a new beginning for us because Anthony had just got his permanent residency after moving to Canada from the States. We’re just still newly married, and Anthony just started a new job. So, it seemed to fit.

Credit: Courtesy CTV; Francesca Roh/Xtra

Xtra: During the show, you showed how racing with integrity was important for the both of you. Why is that?

AJ: I think it’s important to live your life with integrity. The way we raced is the way that we try to live our lives. I think just being ourselves and being natural and also respecting a lot of the teachings that we’ve received from our parents, from our family, from our elders and also just life experience.

JM: We thought about what our grandmothers and grandfathers would think about us and we wanted to make them proud. So that’s how we raced.

Xtra: How did you remain balanced during the race?

JM: That was a huge issue for us every day, and how we did that was through smudging. Smudging is an Indigenous spiritual practice where you use the smoke of different medicines to bless yourself, and it really brought us into alignment with each other. We also did that with our crew as well. So with the camera people, the sound people, so that their equipment would work well and we set out good intentions for the other racers, too, so that we would have good competition, that they wouldn’t get injured and that everyone would have a very positive experience on the race and they can get through it safely.

AJ: It’s also lots of hugs and kisses and cuddling and just taking that downtime to refresh and be close to each other.

Xtra: In a previous interview, you said you want to be an example for Indigenous youth to show that they, too, can be successful. Why does having a positive representation matter?

AJ: I think the great thing about The Amazing Race Canada is that the format of the show is designed to get people engaged, and throughout the process of viewing the season we’ve learned that this is a family show. People watch it together as a family. It’s intergenerational. Grandparents with grandchildren and everyone in between. So being on TV and being in people’s living rooms, we felt it was very important to show Indigenous youth, trans youth, Two-Spirit youth and really anyone who wanted to get up off the couch to do something positive for themselves.

JM: Just thinking back to when we were younger there were so few things on TV that were like LGBTQ2-related. I remember watching when Ellen DeGeneres came out on her show and that was like a huge thing. So, we wanted to give some visual representation to minorities, Indigenous people and especially Two-Spirit youth because they are such an important part of our nations and communities. We wanted them to see themselves on TV. We wanted to show that it’s totally fine, normal and cool and acceptable to be who they are.

AJ: One of the things about being LGBTQ2S+ is it can be kind of lonely and isolating. It’s almost 2020 and, you know, it’s a day and age when diversity and acceptance is the name of the game — but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t somebody in some small town, or even in a big city, or who has a family that’s maybe not accepting, and who feels that isolation and loneliness. If we can be those people on TV in skirts, digging clams, running this crazy adventure and showing them that life goes on, that life is okay and, most importantly, that you can be who you are — that was what was most important for us.

Xtra: What do you think your representation as both Indigenous and Two-Spirit means for the Indigenous narrative in Canada?

AJ: One of the things we’ve done throughout this season has been to host viewing parties for our fans, for our friends, for our family. And that’s been really exciting to see different communities come together, from Indigenous people to settlers to newcomers. I think that our presence on this show is making the narrative of First Nations people a little bit more real for people watching at home. I think there’s still this perception of Indians and teepees and war, but it’s 2019. We’re wearing T-shirts. Yet there’s still a rich heritage. For people to see [us and our cultures] and experience them in a new and fresh way is going to allow them to see Indigenous people in a new way.

JM: We wanted to remind people of the treaty relationship that our ancestors agreed to, which was peace and friendship. We were supposed to live here in peace and friendship and get along. And by being in people’s living room every Tuesday, and being kind and nice and bringing that sort of presence into their home, it really opens up conversations in a good way among different, diverse groups of people.

AJ: It also makes the narrative more fabulous.

Xtra: We’ve seen you discuss important issues like missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Why is it important to use this platform to shed light on these types of issues?

JM: Indigenous women are the backbones of all of our nations and communities and we wouldn’t be anywhere without them. The fact that so many people are going missing, unnoticed, we felt it was really important to bring attention to that issue — especially as male First Nations people, where often there is a sense of hyper-masculinity and toxic masculinity and all these different things that are now a part of our community that never existed before. So to race in skirts and to blur the lines of gender and blur the lines of sexuality while bringing attention to [MMIWG] was really important for us to do.

AJ: One of the outcomes of World War II among the Jewish community is this idea of never forgetting. You know, we can never forget the Holocaust because when it goes out of memory then it goes out of the lived experience. To be on this show and talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and to be representations of First Nations people who talk about the importance of water and life — that’s something that we can never forget. And as Indigenous people [these are issues] we live with every single day. The general public, the wider audience, they don’t live with that, they don’t know. Our message is that we can’t forget these things. When it’s human lives that are at risk, when it’s our own humanity that’s at risk, it’s something that we need to talk about and it’s something that we need to take action on because it’s literally the future generations that will be affected.

Xtra: You talked about wearing skirts in the show — what was that like during filming?

JM: How it affected our performance on the race was actually quite profound. So, for example, during the Edmonton leg, it took us 45 minutes to get a cab because we’re two guys wearing skirts in a very public way. We felt that it actually prevented us from getting a cab because of homophobia or potential transphobia.

AJ: The day that we wore the skirts was a hard day. We did feel a sense of discrimination. And for me, the overwhelming sensation was a feeling of fear. And Indigenous women, and women in general, live in fear on a daily basis. People of colour live in fear, and trans people live in fear, and to have that experience of feeling fear as a six-foot-three man, I felt what people feel like. It was an honour for me to wear that skirt and to feel that fear because, at that moment, the people who may have thought something about trans people or Indigenous people or women, they saw me wearing the skirt as taking a stand.

Credit: Courtesy CTV; Francesca Roh/Xtra

Xtra: What was the reaction like during your viewing parties?

AJ: It’s not surprising that Indigenous people love us. There are so few Indigenous people on television, especially on an incredible show like The Amazing Race Canada. But what’s been surprising for me is the number of non-Indigenous people who have said those skirts were amazing, or “I never knew this” or “you’re representing this for me.” And one or two weekends ago we were at Calgary Pride, walking through the parade, and it was hug after hug after hug after high five from people of all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. To feel that love and to feel the embrace, it’s been an honour. It’s really been an honour.

JM: People just uniformly said how proud they were of us, or like how happy they were to see all the different issues represented on TV — bringing them forward, giving people a voice and giving back representation matters. And it was really touching to be a part of that.

AJ: There have been some people on social media who’ve said, “Okay, just run the race. Why do you have all this social messaging? Just get through the challenges.” Unfortunately for us, it’s not possible to do that. Our existence by default is a political statement because we’re gay, Indigenous men from a certain place. Just being alive is a political statement. And so that’s been fun to kind of show people that side of us.

JM: I think one of the coolest experiences that we’ve had at one of our viewing parties happened in the town that I grew up in, that I actually left to move to Edmonton. It was in this school gym with maybe 400 people from rural Alberta, all from different backgrounds. And we were up at the front of the crowd talking about different things regarding the race and we looked up and realized we’re in a Catholic gym with a big cross on the wall. There are rural Alberta folks, many of whom are not Indigenous but who are from different backgrounds, cheering for an Indigenous gay married couple. And it was really surreal to experience that and to know that we were in the same place that I had left so many years earlier — it showed how things are changing in a positive way for people. And it was so beautiful to see them come together and rally behind us and all the things that we represent.

Xtra: What’s your message to the LGBTQ2 community?

AJ: To the LGBTQ2 community, let’s work on embracing diversity. Let’s embrace each other more. The world is a hard place to live in and we don’t have time to throw shade at each other — maybe a little shade here and there, like, it’s a little bit fun to get some tea going, but let’s just build that family and be together more because we don’t have time. There’s so much to get done in this world, the queer community is so powerful and there are so many talented people out there that we should embrace one another and support one another and help each other shine. The world doesn’t know what it’s in store for.