Canada Question
Ajax’s Maryanne Oketch said kindness was key to ‘Survivor’ win

Ajax’s Maryanne Oketch said kindness was key to ‘Survivor’ win

Ajax’s Maryanne Oketch said kindness was key to ‘Survivor’ win

If the last two years have shown us anything, it’s that Canadians know how to survive.

The best part is now we can prove it.

For the second consecutive season, a player from Ontario has won “Survivor.”

On Wednesday, Ajax resident Maryanne Oketch won the US$1 million prize as she outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted four others on the CBS and Global TV reality program.

Oketch is winner number 42, the second Canadian to take home the prize money, and only the second Black female player to be crowned champion. The first was Vecepia Towery who won the show’s fourth season twenty years ago, when Oketch was just a toddler.

In an interview with the Star after her big night, Oketch said she was happy to play a game that she has watched for most of her life.

“It means so much to me,” she said. “I was able to live my dream and also able to give back and let other people enjoy me as entertainment. It’s a blessing and I’m so grateful.”

The 24-year-old seminary graduate who was born in Karlsruhe, Germany to Kenyan parents before moving to Canada, said she celebrated her moment in a private function with family and friends.

“When I won, my parents got me a traditional (African) crown. It was a combination of cultures. Technically I am a first-generation but functionally a second-generation immigrant to Canada. It was just really nice to have a typical western party but to still be able to connect to where I am from.”

The significance of her win isn’t lost on diverse players of the past, present, or future. Former “Survivor” champion Wendell Holland acknowledged its importance. He teamed up with a group of other Black players after his win in 2018. Calling themselves the “Soul Survivor Alliance,” the alumni asked CBS for numerous diversity measures.

“What we wanted to do was make the ‘Survivor’ landscape more fair,” Holland said. “When I was on ‘Survivor Ghost Island,’ I was one of three Black people on the island. Fortunately, I was able to get to the end and win but that doesn’t always happen. Usually (and historically) Black people, minorities, and people in the LGBTQ community get voted out early or voted out in groups. Now there is almost like a critical mass of BIPOC players, it seems like the landscape is a lot more fair.”

Oketch showed the value she placed on diversity during the game. During one tribal council, she refused to cast her vote against Drea Wheeler (another Black female) realizing that sending Drea home would mean sending home the third Black player in a row.

“Just watching as a player or just even as someone who watches as a fan, it was very disheartening for me. I knew that even if it hurt my game a little bit more, I needed to keep Drea in it. I wouldn’t be able to continue to play the game that I wanted to play if I voted her out.”

It wasn’t the first time the newest “Survivor” winner zeroed in on representation. While attending McMaster University, she was approached to discuss her experience as a Black student at the school. This led to her establishing a program at the school that provides increased support to minority students.

“In a lot of institutions, there’s a big focus on having diversity, so then they’ll have that diversity but won’t have the structures to support the students. In my program, we had three Black students and I was the only one who graduated. It might have been because of the difficulty but maybe there were also external factors. There needs to be structuring support for these groups that are under-represented in these spaces.”

Oketch, a fan favorite from the start because of her infectious and bubbly personality, hid her deep knowledge of the game and became a silent and strategic assassin. Oketch used her extra vote advantage to vote out fellow Ontarian Omar Zaheer. When asked about her vote against him, she laughed and admitted that while she did think about the consequences of cutting a fellow Canadian, the decision to turn on her countryman is what ultimately pushed her to the end.

“In my mind, I knew that if I was going to get Omar out, I had to win. If it didn’t turn out the way that it did, then maybe I would regret it. The hesitancy was because I love Omar. I am from Ajax. He is from Whitby and we were very close.”

As with most winners, Oketch’s biggest struggle was reconciling her ethics in a game that often rewards deception. To prepare, she read interviews with former “Survivor” players with whom she shared a similar belief system. She learned about how players now have regrets about not doing whatever it took to win when they had the chance.

“I knew going into the game that I didn’t want to make that same mistake,” Oketch said. “If I needed to blindside someone, I just made sure to treat them and everyone with kindness when I was on the island instead of intentionally isolating them.”

It’s that same courtesy that has marked the beginning of a Canadian dynasty of winners, as Oketch’s win follows Niagara Falls’ Erika Casupanan’s victory last season.

Showing the same sense of humor that she had on the show, Oketch joked that Americans shouldn’t even apply to “Survivor” anymore given the recent northern success.

“Honestly? They should give up. They had the first 40 seasons. The next 40 are ours.”

As for why she believes Canadians are on this recent run?

“We’re just genuinely nice people.”

Murtz Jaffer is a Toronto-based entertainment writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @murtzjaffer

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