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by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate

Born Free USA's Canadian Representative

Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)

Get a grip, Rex

Published 06/10/09

If you’re Canadian, there’s a good chance you are aware that Rex Murphy is a well-known Canadian commentator most visible as a once-per-week commentator on “Point of View,” an editorial on The National, which is flagship TV news show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). There he is usually indignant, eloquent, supercilious, and highly critical of whatever irks him. He also often hosts a phone-in radio show, Cross Country Checkup, also on the CBC, every Sunday afternoon. There he is normally polite, balanced, and gracious, having a few special guests informed on the topic of the day, plus listeners who call in with their own opinions.

If you’re not Canadian you may not only not be unaware of Mr. Murphy, you probably also don’t know what the heck a Governor General is, and may be unaware of Michaëlle Jean (the French pronunciation is correct, something like “zjahn”), who now holds that post.

Or maybe you have heard of heard of her, due to a few small bites of a meal she had last month. She was, at the time, visiting an Inuit feast at Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, in her official capacity as the Queen’s representative, the Queen in question being Elizabeth II. That queen is, technically, the boss, the true top leader of Canada, officially known as the Queen of Canada, part of what happens when you don’t fight your way out of a political system which, 18th century tea taxes aside, is pretty benign. Since she doesn’t actually live here, most of her constitutional and ceremonial duties in Canada, or involving Canadians (such as visiting Canadian troops overseas) are performed by a vice regal, or Governor General. The Prime Minister of Canada (who is chosen by the party that elects the most Members of Parliament during a federal election) selects the vice regal who, upon a normally perfunctory approval by the Queen, holds the post for several years.

The choice by former Prime Minister Paul Martin to choose Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean for a turn at being the Governor General had not been without controversy, due to connections she and her husband, Jean-Daniel LaFond, reportedly had with supporters of the infamous Front de Libération de Québec, a domestic terrorist organization. But many of us Canadians have grown very fond of her and her ability, as Rex Murphy put it, to “... swoosh into an NAC [National Arts Gallery] gala with the best of the `fashionistas,’ chat with President Obama in perfect ease, and sit on the ground in a track suit, wielding a ulu ...”

Ulu? That’s a knife used by Inuit in the arctic, and what she used it for was to help herself to a taste of raw seal heart, dripping blood.

This was an Inuit feast, she was a special guest, and raw seal has been no less a staple of the Inuit diet for as long or much longer than toast and jam or a cup of coffee has been a staple of anyone else’s nutritional regime. Any number of royalty, vice regals, politicians, and other dignitaries have, upon visiting Canada’s far north, dined upon a wide variety of native game species, from char to caribou and from toasted ptarmigan to whale blubber. They have done so without a goodly chunk of the world taking note.

But Jean’s act was timed to take full advantage of the news cameras present. The choice was hers (there was other food available, she chose the raw heart), and followed hard upon the European Union’s decision to ban the import of products from what has become popularly known as the Canadian seal hunt — the slaughter of some two to three hundred or more thousand seals, mostly animals a few weeks old, on the whelping grounds of the harp and hooded seal on ice floes off the northern coast of Newfoundland, and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, each spring. When reporters asked her if she was sending a message to Europeans Jean replied, “They can take from it what they will.”

Governors General are not supposed to be “political.” One can’t imagine the Queen, notwithstanding that she’s had to eat some pretty strange things and that her husband seems to have a near pathological desire to shoot things (common things; if they are endangered he staunchly defends them), so intentionally and strongly taking a side on so contentious an issue. The Queen, herself, is silent on the issue, but her former press secretary, unrestrained by the genteel niceties of protocol, reportedly said, “To start cutting up a seal and eating it is sort of making a political statement and not what one expects a governor general to do.”

Rex Murphy was as delighted by Jean’s action as he was disgusted by her critics. Murphy, who hails from Newfoundland, has always been an outspoken defender of the Canadian seal hunt ... the one Europeans no longer want to support as consumers of its product (the United States, Canada’s biggest trading partner, banned the import of seal, or any other marine mammals, nearly thirty years ago). The native hunt has never been targeted for elimination by anyone, and is exempt from the European ban.

I think some of Mr. Murphy’s irritation was justified. I certainly don’t think there was anything more “disgusting” in Jean’s actions than in eating lamb or veal, which she was quick to point out she also ate. The difference between raw and cooked makes no difference to the individual, once dead, being eaten.

“Actually,” Murphy rhapsodized, “the Governor General was a model of deep courtesy in her actions and visit. How much we talk the talk of ‘diversity,’ `respect for traditions,’ and regard for aboriginal peoples. Yet here we have the head of state of Canada not just flitting by, but staying over, participating, mixing in depth with the people of the far north. The response? We have all sorts of superior people calling her `too bizarre,’ citing her actions as `bloodlust,’ `Neanderthal,’ `offensive’ and insulting her as stupid and immoral.”

Neanderthal? Could anyone think Neanderthals might eat raw meat from freshly killed wildlife? And why is it wrong to be compared to Neanderthals at any rate?

There’s the problem. In our politically correct world there is no one left to insult, to be indifferent to, except animals and, apparently, those who seek to defend them, and, I guess, extinct humans.

There is no nuance here. In his Cross Country Checkup show, broadcast live on May 31, only two or three callers dared question Jean’s actions, with one nervous lady pointing out that the traditional Inuit hunt, involving a relatively small number of mostly different seal species (bearded and ringed seals, although some harp and hooded seals may also be hunted, and with virtually all parts utilized), has nothing to do with either the hunt that produces the products now banned by the EU, and has never been opposed by the animal protection movement.

That is a distinction that the fur industry, the Canadian government, and even Inuit politicians, have very purposely blurred. “In Defence of the Fur Trade: A Discussion paper prepared by Department of External Affairs” in 1985, and, the same year, “Launching the Offensive,” produced by Gray and Company Public Communications International, based on a seminar called “The Animal Rights Movement, Trappers and the Canadian Fur Industry; Facing the Facts and Shaping the Message,” both indicated that many people who might, on humanitarian or environmental grounds, be expected to have second thoughts about buying furs, are most likely to make that purchase if made to believe that furs are a “natural resource,” are “sustainably harvested” and part of aboriginal culture. The less fur is associated with animals, the more acceptable it becomes.

When, in the late 1960s, a somewhat nascent animal protection movement began to educate the world as to the nature of the east coast hunt, the price in sealskins tanked, and that most certainly hurt the aboriginal hunters — an unintended consequence. Yes, selling skins in order to earn money to pay for the modern means by which subsistence hunts are now conducted might not be “traditional,” but adaptation is, and in a place where commonplace groceries can cost a dozen times more than they do in your local supermarket, money earned from such sales can be important to survival in a very harsh and unforgiving environment — a place where fruit and vegetable farms, even trees, just don’t exist and temperatures can get low enough to make freezers seem temperate by comparison.

But what if there were no Canadian seal hunt as defined by the massive east coast annual slaughter? What if seals were only killed by the people who needed them, used all their parts, and sold some pelts to offset costs, but did not slaughter tens or hundreds of thousands of young seals on their whelping grounds? It seems to me that such a scenario would provide a monopoly for the aboriginal hunt. It would allow the marketable product of that hunt to be taken out of the sphere of concern generated by the vastly different and internationally detested east coast hunt. But it also seems to me to be a scenario that can only exist once the massive, east coast commercial hunt has ended.

If people like Rex Murphy, and the current Governor General, as well as the fur industry, have their collective way, we’ll never know. That’s as it is, but to suggest that therefore the interests of the northern people are held uppermost and respected, is the hypocritical height of irony.

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