Canadians on Survivor are smart, strategic — and underestimated, ex-champ says

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When Erika Casupanan of Toronto won the popular reality TV game show Survivor in 2021, she did it by flying under the radar, and working in the shadows.

“I really brought in my experience as being an underestimated Asian woman who went through the corporate world and so many professional settings where no matter how capable I was, people really wanted to underestimate me,” said Casupanan, winner of Survivor‘s 41st season. 

“I thought, OK, you know what, I’m going to take that and use that to everybody else’s downfall.”

And she did — outlasting other competitors, winning the $1 million prize and earning the title of sole survivor. The win made her the first Canadian to ever win the CBS reality game show, even though Canadians have only been allowed on the show for just a couple seasons. 

The very next season, Maryanne Oketch of Ajax, Ont., put the Canadian win count to two.

It invites the question; are Canadians the best at Survivor?

“If you look at the data objectively, we kill it. We’re great,” said Casupanan.

The American competitive reality TV show Survivor, hosted by Jeff Probst, is in its 45th season. In 2019, Canadians were allowed to join the cast of people vying to become the sole survivor. (Robert Voets/CBS)

Playing it low-key

According to podcaster Philip (J.E. Skeets) Elder, Canadians on average are more low-key than Americans, and that gives them an advantage in the game.  

“They are a little more quiet. And I mean that as a compliment,” said Elder. 

“They’ll sort of remain in the shadows a little bit more, more interested in just not talking, maybe as much about me, me, me, and listening and asking questions. And I think that really helps in a game of Survivor and has helped some of the winners.”

Elder, originally from Stratford, Ont., hosts a podcast for The Athletic called No Buffs, which runs weekly recaps of Survivor episodes when the show’s on the air.

He says there’s a certain likeability factor that Canadian winners have used to get that final victory.

A man sits behind a laptop and a microphone.
Philip Elder, also known as J.E. Skeets, is co-host of the Survivor podcast No Buffs. (No Buffs)

“It’s a game where you vote people out, you backstab them, and then you turn around and ask them for a million dollars. And what it comes down to usually is, ‘Do I like that person enough?'” said Elder. 

Canadians’ reputation as “fairly affable, likable people” holds true, for the most part, he said.

Casupanan says the stereotype was essential for her own survival.

“I think that was admittedly a culture shock for me when I went to play the game, because I think that our standard for nice in Canada is vastly different [from the] standard of nice in the U.S.,” she said.

“I think that it also means that Canadians are in a better position to hide their more tactical [or] strategic sides, but behind this nice and friendly demeanour.”

A history of Canadians on Survivor

It hasn’t been all success. Survivor first started allowing Canadians on the show in its 39th season back in 2019. Retired NHL player Tom Laidlaw, who was born in Brampton, Ont., took part, but was the fifth player voted out. 

There were no Canadians on Survivor’s 40th season, which only consisted of previous winners. 

Shantel Smith and Omar Zaheer lost to their fellow Canadians in Survivor 41 and Survivor 42. Kane Fritzler was the eighth person voted out in Survivor 43.

A man watches as another man extinguishes his torch.
Vancouver’s Kaleb Gebrewold has his torch extinguished by Jeff Probst, signalling his elimination, in Survivor’s 45th season. (Robert Voets/CBS)

In Survivor’s current season, which will conclude on Dec. 20, Kaleb Gebrewold of Vancouver was voted out after players stated on the show that he was too much of a threat to keep around. 

That still adds up to two Canadians walking away with the $1-million prize out of five seasons that have included Canadians. Oketch says it’s hard to argue against the numbers. 

“If you look at the average placement of Canadians and compare it to everyone in different states, we are abnormally high,” she said.

And Oketch says that no matter where they place, any future Canadian competitors will be part of an exclusive club.

“We have a group chat and you will be able to join the group chat after,” said Oketch.

“Whether you’re from the East Coast, the West Coast, central — we’re a big family. We all take care of each other. We all love each other. And regardless of if you are helping with the trend or if you are the first one to break that trend, we’ll still welcome you with open arms.”

Potential drawback

Elder says the success of Canadians could also be attributed to the show’s popularity. Despite having a big fan base in Canada, fans weren’t able to apply to be on the show for almost 20 years. 

“For 38 seasons you’re not even allowed to go on. And then they open it up, you’re naturally going to get people that have a desire to play the game,” said Elder.

“Suddenly they’re allowed on it. And then you get some of these people that are diehards and know the game really well.”

Maryanne Oketch looks into the distance with foliage in the background.
Maryanne Oketch of Ajax, Ont., won season 42 of Survivor in 2022. (Robert Voets/CBS)

But he says that success may pose a challenge for future Canadian applicants.

Many people who go on the show tend to lie to other players about their profession. Lawyers often don’t want people to know that’s what they do, and former pro athletes tend to be tight lipped about their past earnings. 

Elder wonders if that trend might extend to people’s nationality. 

“If we get more Canadians and if they continue to do well, either they are a threat or they win, will people that are on the island start lying about their citizenship?” said Elder. 

“In season 55 of Survivor, will someone be like, ‘Yeah, you know, I’m from Stratford, Ont., but I can’t tell them that, I guess I’m from Kalamazoo, Michigan?'”

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