Artisan Butcher Heat Laliberte Has Made It Through Hell and Back
“I’m trans and I’m First Nations. Statistically, I should be dead. It makes me sad.”
Photo by Max Huang
A navy blue corduroy Supreme hat sits backwards on Heat Laliberte’s head, giving a peek of jet black hair through the snapback. Tattooed forearms, on one a wolf and the other a raven, are striking when you first lay eyes on him. He’s stocky with broad shoulders, and eyes that change color from dark to light and back again in the morning sun that cuts through the Venetian blinds. “I brought something for you!” he smiles, digging into his backpack with childlike giddiness. He never shows up empty-handed, and this time is no different. He slaps two vacuum-sealed packs of the good stuff in my hands. It’s his Vancouver-famous artisanal bacon—the best cured pig belly I’ve ever had, hands down. Heat Laliberte is an accomplished chef, master butcher, owner-operator of Vancouver-based One Arrow Meats, and Cree-Métis trans man.
One Arrow is Laliberte’s first company, and one that has continued to grow with exponential success over the past 3 years. Its name honors his Cree heritage; and was inspired by the aesthetic and symbolism of the ancient projectile. Why bacon? “When you smell it in the morning, it just makes everyone happy,” he explains, wrinkling a smile at me.
One Arrow’s success is hinged on Heat’s commitment to serving the communities who shop at Vancouver’s many farmers markets. The time and effort put into creating his product is not lost on them. Everything is done by hand and in small batches, a craft he honed and perfected while developing the in-house charcuterie program of Vancouver’s prestigious Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. The hogs are sourced from British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, 45 minutes from the city, and are raised hormone free.. Once he gets them, the meat is cured for 5 days with a rub applied painstakingly by hand, and then cut, smoked, and hawked—all himself. The process is arduous and time-consuming, as opposed to the sort of mass-produced saline-injected pig bellies that get sprayed with artificial liquid smoke in factories. It’s not about the easy way, it’s about the right way.
The community and his customers really do love him and his product. I’ve witnessed it. The road has been long and continues to yield great success. But it wasn’t always this way.
Assigned female at birth in 1980s Humboldt (an hour’s drive east of Saskatoon) to a teen mother, Heat was put up for adoption at just 6 months to a white Canadian family in a lower-income Saskatoon neighborhood, along with his brother and sister. With dad the sole breadwinner as the graveyard shift janitor at the University of Saskatoon, Heat and his siblings fell primarily under the care of his mother, who had challenges with mental illness and addiction.
“I was always running away from home; my mother had a terrible temper,” he recalls, staring into his mug of coffee. He’d seek safety, stability, and often a hot meal with the family of the kids he babysat. His mom would often call, threatening the family with accusations of child abduction if Heat didn’t return home. Heat says she often leaned on manipulation, emotionally abusing her children—and, in one case, influencing them to testify against their father so she could retain custody of them while divorcing him for another man.
This is a reality too often lived by Canadian First Nations youth. To grow up trans makes it exponentially more difficult.
“I’m trans and I’m First Nations. Statistically, I should be dead. It makes me sad,” his voice tapers off between sips from his mug. He remembers being 4 years old and feeling the body he occupied wasn’t the one he felt was his. “I always knew I was a boy. I’d pee standing up,” he looks back and chuckles. Heat started binding his chest at age 17. The incessant feelings of body dysmorphia, sparsely accessible resources for trans youth, the hormonal timebomb of puberty, and outward homophobia and transphobia of Saskatoon left Heat isolated and confused. Little would he know the next step in his journey in becoming the man he now is would begin with his mother’s ultimatum.
“One day, she called me, telling me she had a job opportunity in BC as a caretaker for this old gold mine baron,” he recalls. He was given the option of moving with them or remaining in Saskatoon. Either way, she was taking his brother and sister with her out west.
“I was never going to abandon them—it would have killed me if I had left them.”
The rest of his high school was completed in Aldergrove, sharing a home with his siblings and mother with another family friend on the acreage of their employer. “I was kicked out countless times by my mom...countless,” as he remembers his time in the rural BC township. “The last time she kicked me out I moved to Vancouver.”
Over the years prior to his break for the city, Heat had been making trips to Vancouver, most specifically to the city’s West End/Davie Village area, where the city’s queer community is traditionally based. “I just needed to make new friends—to meet other queer people and to figure out who I was.” Not out as trans, he quickly was made to feel at home in the community, given places to stay by his teammates of a women’s rugby team he joined in the West End. Living, working, and even performing in an internationally touring drag king troupe (Heat was his stage name before transitioning), this time period would also mark his foray into cooking and the creation of his company.
“I really didn’t care what job I did, I just wanted to be surrounded by other queer people. I didn’t want to feel like I was in danger anymore,” he explains as he places his mug down. He started as an expediter at the Moxie’s in the Sandman Suite, right in the heart of Davie Village, and quickly segued into the kitchen as a line cook. The sense of family forged in the daily grind of service provided him with sense of community. “It was such a rush. We were all early 20s shitheads partying all the time, but we were close. It was a family,” he reminisces fondly, looking out the window. He credits this sense of community and family in providing the confidence he needed to share an aspect of himself he had long repressed. At 23 years old he told his closest circles he was trans.
The working kitchen environment is often one described as patriarchal, toxically masculine, and militant. Heat’s experiences as an openly trans line cook were, for the most part, accepting experiences. One, and only one instance, he recalls was not. A co-worker had once outed him to the whole staff without permission.
“When someone outs me or misgenders me on purpose it’s so disrespectful. It feels like something is taken away from me—something that is mine. My choice has been stolen and it really disappoints me. It hurts me.”
Despite bigotry, Heat had built a life for himself that the little trans boy in Saskatoon could have never envisioned.
It was also around this time the banging of a roommate’s fist on his bedroom door would threaten to destroy everything he had built in Vancouver. Heat’s sister was on the phone with news: His brother had been murdered. Killed in an alley walking home behind the Countryside Shopping Centre in Aldergrove. This is what Heat recalls as "the beginning of the dark times.” A year later, his mother passed away. The murder of his brother is still unsolved.
Through death comes rebirth. Commencing hormone therapy, grinding in kitchens with the unwavering support of his partner (and now soon-to-be wife, Adriana), Heat saved for his top surgery, a double mastectomy, which cost over $10,000.
His career’s upward trajectory has been prestigious, working in kitchens of The Blue Water Cafe, Westin Bayshore, and The Fairmont Pacific Rim. Learning the craft of breaking down animals, curing, turning them into sausage, and all the other esoteric crafts of charcuterie, Heat discovered this would be both his passion and livelihood. One Arrow Meats is the culmination of specialization and perfection of a ubiquitous breakfast staple.
Over the past three years, Heat and his bacon have made over fifty appearances in Vancouver’s numerous farmer’s markets. Hawking, sampling, and sharing the story about his craft and himself, he’s won the respect and adoration of Vancouver’s bacon lovers. Heat touts One Arrow as 100% Aboriginal owned and operated.
“So what does this all mean then?” I ask as I shuffle over to refill his cup.
“At end of the day I want to help people,” he replies without skipping a beat. “If I can grow this business, incorporate community organizations into mine, give back, and mentor youth while selling my bacon, that’s all I want. I don’t need to be rich.”
This article originally appeared on Munchies US.