By Lisa Charleyboy
“Half-breed is an historic term used to describe anyone who is of mixed Native American (especially North American) and white European parentage. Métis is a more general French term for mixed race, which has generally referred to a person of descent from two different major ethnic groups, such as European and African, European and Native American, or European and Asian.”—Wikipedia, the first Google hit for “half-breed.”
Despite the fact that there are nearly 80,000 Aboriginal people in the GTA, Indigenous people are nearly invisible to the average Toronto resident. When Native people visit from cities like Edmonton and Winnipeg, where the Aboriginal population is highly visible, they are often confused as to where all the Native people are.
This invisibility often means that immigrants who come to Canada have little education about the history or current reality of Indigenous people whose land they are settling on. Outside of Canada, the North American “Indian” is usually known by tired stereotypes—like the Noble Savage, Pocahontas, or the Drunken, Dirty Half-breed.
For those who don’t know, the “Drunken, Dirty Half-breed” was, until last August, the name of a hamburger at Holy Chuck Burger, near Yonge and St. Clair. Also on the menu was a burger named the “Half-Breed,” and both had been menu staples since 2011.
After his racist burger caused a flurry of online outrage, Holy Chuck co-owner Bill Koutroubis swore to the Toronto Star that he never knew the term “half-breed” might have negative connotations. The names were chosen, Koutroubis said, because the patties were a mixture of two kinds of meat. “Drunken” came from the chili topping, which contains alcohol. And “dirty,” because hey, it’s a messy thing to eat.
“Racialized terms have been used historically as a means to market objects, such as food, with names like ‘Indian cornbread’ or ‘squaw bread’ or ‘Cherikee Red’ soda,” says Tannis Nielsen (Métis/Cree/Danish), a practicing professional Indigenous artist based in Toronto. “These derogatory terms are used to devalue the reality of our Indigeneity.”
Koutroubis said that as a Greek person, he’d never insult someone based on their ethnicity. A generous observer might blame the invisibility of Toronto Aboriginals for his lack of knowledge about the 73,605 Ontarians who identify as Métis—who were referred to as “half-breeds” by the Canadian government until as late as the early 20th century. “Because many people go through everyday without interacting with a Native person, the only representations of Indigenous people they see on a daily basis are stereotypes,” says Adrienne Keene, a PhD student at Harvard University who runs the blog Native Appropriations. “It’s no wonder that the store owner didn’t think twice about promoting a burger named after a racial slur.” Koutroubis told the Toronto Star that he “never meant to be malicious” with his “innocent play on words.”
But wait: when Holy Chuck Burgers first announced its Half-Breed burgers last December, one eagle-eyed Twitter user clearly alerted the burger joint of the potential minefield that they would be walking into.
They had a chance to Google and correct their mistake, but instead chose to do nothing.
That is, until last August, when an overwhelming barrage of social media insults brought Holy Chuck a slew of negative media coverage, and even more complaints.
Forced into making the change, Holy Chuck was far from gracious.
Last month, designer Paul Frank announced that his New York City Fashion’s Night Out party would have a ‘Dream Catchin’ Pow Wow theme. When alerted to the insulting aspects of this party by Keene, the company immediately responded. President Elie Dekel apologized, and removed all Native imagery online and from all the products in production. The company even agreed to collaborate with a Native artist to design a fundraising product for a Native cause.
The difference between the two responses is remarkable. “When I became aware that [Holy Chuck was] called out on this same issue months earlier, it made me second guess their credibility and the sincerity of their apology.” says Mark Rutledge (Ojibway), a graphic designer and former Toronto resident.
Had Holy Chuck Burgers apologized with sincerity last December, the duo might have had less egg on their face. If they had donated some of their proceeds to a Métis organization, they’d be a public relations case study, not a nightmare. Instead, they played dumb, and then played the victim, and their restaurant will always be associated with insensitivity and prejudice.
The power of the internet unites Indigenous Peoples all over the world. We stand united when we feel we are being racialized, marginalized, or commodified. Some businesses become enlightened, while others continue to hide under their blankets of ignorance.
Lisa Charleyboy is a freelance writer who blogs at Urban Native Girl.