Team Ahkameyimok: Don’t give up; keep going!
With “Team Ahkameyimok” (from the Plains Cree language, meaning “Don’t give up. Keep going. Persevere.”) stenciled on their bright orange t-shirts, James and Anthony’s commitment to representing their team motto’s message of determination was always evident, as they overcame one TARC challenge after another. While their mutual respect and love played a key role in their harmonious teamwork, so did an ever-present sense of humor.
For example, there was Anthony’s “Buttery Nanaimo Bar” song that he sang to himself as he awaited his turn (after bungee-jumping) to recite the ingredients of the classic Nanaimo Bar. Based on a memory technique, called "Memory Palace", that he had learned prior to competing on TARC, Anthony's lyrics included, “There’s butter in my basket; brown sugar in my keybox; there’s cocoa on my sofa; there’s graham crackers on my TV; there’s eggs on my antlers; there’s coconut on my Island; there’s almonds on my table …”
But not all was fun and games, and Team Ahkameyimok relied on their motto to get them through some particularly difficult times. One such experience was the French-language challenge at Le Manoir Richelieu, site of the 2018 G7 summit, where a member of each team was required to re-enact the delivery of one of the Prime Minister's statements made to the press, at the summit. For the re-enactment, the contestant had to memorize a short statement and deliver it (in English and French) to the (staged) press gallery, while responding to gallery questions in Japanese, German and Italian.
The challenge was exceptionally difficult and stressful for James for a couple of reasons: as part of his residential school experience, James's father had been forced to abandon his own language and learn another; and, in the guise of the Prime Minister, James had to deliver this statement espousing the principles G7 nations adhere to regarding human rights, the Rule of Law, territorial integrity and democracy, all while standing in front of a Neoclassical portrait of a white woman standing, reading a book to a group of Indigenous women sitting on the ground, at her feet.
Describing the challenge, James says, “I had so many layers going on in my head … Thinking of 2008, when I was in medical school and Stephen Harper apologized to residential school survivors. Then, in 2009, at the G20 Summit, he said Canada has no history of colonization … I’ve researched things government leaders have said about my people,” he continues.
“I had to read those statements … I had to stand in front of the Neoclassical painting of a white woman reading a book to Indigenous women; women portrayed as smaller, sitting down at the feet of the white woman … It displayed the narrative that Indigenous people don’t know anything; that we need someone else to teach it to us; that we’re smaller, somehow insignificant and that we did not have our own system of learning and education.
“Those are the experiences we’ve had, that we’re constantly confronted with,” says James. Yet, for all the negativity and difficult emotions that it conjured, the challenge was a reminder to James and Anthony of their purpose and mission on TARC: to increase awareness of, and respect for, the people who make up Canada’s diverse cultures and communities.
Canada: Meet James and Anthony!
James’ and Anthony’s foray into TARC was not undertaken on a whim, or for the purpose of potentially winning some cash, or vehicles, or a trip around the world. In the show’s popularity with Canadian television audiences (two million viewers watched the Season 7 premier), and as the show’s first and only Indigenous, two-spirit couple, they saw an opportunity for valuable exposure of issues close to their hearts and culture, and to help people who might be struggling with those issues.
In an interview on CTV’s The Social, James said, “… so many people don’t have the opportunity to feel included; in fact, they feel excluded. And so, when we were racing, we were racing for all of those people from diverse communities. That’s who was with us on that mat when we arrived; all of those people who were behind and beside us.”
“By being open about who we are – an Indigenous, gay, two-spirit, married couple – it brought attention to those issues in a way that had never happened before,” explains James. “There we were, on mainstream TV: Our red skirts with rainbow ribbons to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the role of women in Indigenous society (that has been displaced by the imposition of elected Chief and Council systems where only men have a voice); and for two-spirit, transgender youth, by wearing skirts, we wanted to show that was okay and good.”
In a CTV post-win interview, as he reflected on their win, James said one of the main reasons it was such an emotional experience for him was, “Knowing how many people were supporting us and saw themselves in us; and all the messages of support that we received, saying things like, ‘We also won! We were right there with you!’ It felt so good to bring people that sense of joy and pride.”
Not just one, but many
There are other Indigenous societal issues of great relevance to James and Anthony that they sought to raise awareness of (and money for), through their participation on TARC. As opposed to the usual exercise gear worn by most race participants, James and Anthony represented their causes with their clothes and conversation.
With their handmade, red skirts and bandanas, they honored missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. In recognition of the life-sustaining importance of water – and the dramatic inequities that exist in the availability of safe drinking water, particularly in Canada’s Indigenous communities – the couple wore blue t-shirts emblazoned with “Water is Life.” After a particularly difficult challenge that brought back memories of his father’s struggles post-residential school, James talked about the lasting, intergenerational trauma effects of residential schools. And at every opportunity, Anthony and James spoke of their desire to help fund the construction of a cultural healing centre in Kehewin Cree Nation.