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Canadian Blog

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!)

Cats, Dogs, and Seals, Oh My

Published 10/13/09

Political scandals are such fun for those of us who don’t like the party involved, and we Canadians enjoyed (well, I certainly did) a juicy one recently when a guy by the name of Maxime Bernier left some documents behind after visiting his girlfriend’s apartment in May 2008. At the time, Bernier was the federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, the documents were classified, and the lady, Julie Couilliard, had been in relationships with some shady characters, one an associate of a Hells Angels leader imprisoned for killing a couple of prison guards, the other a gangster who died in a gangland slaying.

Bernier had already managed to goof up on his portfolio just a short time earlier by saying that he had told the president of Afghanistan to replace the governor of Kandahar province, where Canada had 2,500 troops stationed. In diplomatic circles that level of interference in another country’s internal governmental affairs is frowned upon and the opposition demanded his resignation. And then, as that scandal was still in the news, he carelessly left a batch of classified documents in the possession of someone with no security clearance.

When opposition politicians raised a fuss the Prime Minister called them a “group of gossipy, old busybodies.”

Okay. Maybe that’s true. I certainly wouldn’t hold Mme Couilliard responsible for the unsavory nature of a former guy or two in her life. Neither would I want her exposed to classified state documents. What was in those documents that on the one hand, warranted them being classified, but on the other hand, were so unimportant that senior politicians calling for Bernier’s resignation could be so crudely dismissed by the Prime Minister?

At any rate Bernier was fired from that post and the story died down until recently when, as a result of requests made by the media through provisions of the Access to Information Act, we learned a little of what was in those documents.

I say a little, because much of it was blacked out. The rest referred to things the Canadian media might expect — talking points on such international issues of the day as the tension between Georgia and Russia (armed conflict was soon to erupt); China’s opposition to the Dalai Lama; NATO priorities; climate change and energy security; nuclear power for Estonia; Kosovo’s declaration for independence, and so on, plus one issue that surprised the Canadian media, but not me or my colleagues in the animal protection business: the Canadian seal hunt. Why, it was wondered, would the government redact so much information pertaining to the Canadian seal hunt? What was so secret that it could not be revealed to the rest of the world?

We’ll probably never know.

We do know that Canada was and remains deeply opposed to, and determined to fight, the European Community’s ban on the import of most Canadian seal products (there are exceptions for the relatively small number of products derived from the aboriginal hunt). The EU called the hunt “inherently inhumane.”

The response in Canada’s parliament was certifiably bizarre, and included seal meat put on the parliament’s café menu, wearing seal skin ribbons in parliament, and passing a resolution (thankfully later rescinded) that Canadian athletes participating in the 2010 Winter Olympics wear sealskin in their ceremonial outfits.

I happen to know that there are a small number of parliamentarians as opposed to the seal hunt as you and I but they have to keep low, such is the climate within the Canadian government.

Why is it like that? There is a political answer I’ve addressed a little before but there is another reply which also helps explain why the Canadian media was so surprised that the government would black out so much about the seal hunt on the documents Bernier so carelessly left in his girlfriend’s apartment.

Put very simply, Canadian politicians tend to believe their own propaganda. So do many of the Canadian media. Hence, they remained puzzled, generally speaking, at the EU’s attitude. The problem is that EU politicians tend to be far better informed on the seal hunt issue. They know much, much more about it, and about groups like us, than do their Canadian counterparts.

The myths that the Canadian government promotes (and some of these were, I suspect, outlined in the blacked out parts of Bernier’s mislaid document) appear to be simply understood by many Canadian Members of Parliament. Thus they more or less believe that opponents to the seal hunt are hypocrites for not caring about other animals, or the negative impacts of some of their own cultural activities, like bullfighting or fox-hunting, on animal welfare; that organizations and individuals most vocal about the seal hunt are getting rich; that the seal hunt is no worse than any form of commercial meat production; that the seal hunt is an important source of income for the regions involved; that the seals would, left to survive, eat all the commercial fish; that there are too many seals, more than ever before; that opponents to the hunt are misled by emotive film footage; that baby seals are no longer killed; that the hunt is actually humane; that most of the information provided by the anti-seal hunt movement is badly outdated; that anti-seal hunt activists are violence-prone; and so on and on and on.

Many of these myths are, like all good myths, based on a modicum of fact here or an isolated incident there, but all, and many more, have been carefully investigated by European Union politicians to a far greater degree than by Canadian Members of Parliament. Because of the depths of their investigation of all claims made by all sides of the issue, European parliamentarians have not only investigated the claims by seal hunt opponents, but the assertions about those opponents made by the Canadian government.

Let me give you an example of one such claim, with two parts: that baby seals are no longer killed, and that the anti-seal-hunt–movement uses misleading images of baby seals.

The truthful part is that the seals are protected from the commercial hunt for the first couple of weeks of their lives. That is when they are covered with the white fetal hair of birth. These are the “whitecoats” that were once the major prey of the seal hunt industry. Sometime around the end of the second week of life, the next coat of hair, mostly a pale silvery colour with some dark blotches, starts to emerge and those are the animals that make up the bulk of the victims of the current hunt. At the same time, the seals have stopped suckling.

Whether or not they are still “babies” is surely a matter of semantics, but they still very closely resemble the whitecoat stage. Thus, the argument that “whitecoat” photos are used by the anti-seal hunt movement is based on ignorance of exactly what a young seal, old enough to be hunted, looks like. Indeed, if the first new fur coming in is not visible in the photo, the seal is identical to a whitecoat. The European politicians s know this, the Canadians apparently do not.

And I do know that some anti-seal hunt organizations do use photos of whitecoats that are in their files, but they are not the major groups and their indiscretion in no way justifies universal condemnation of all the organizations and individuals who have worked so hard on promote the European ban, given the sheer intransigence of the Canadian government.

On the heels of the revelations about the redactions of the classified documents Bernier treated so carelessly, came news of a Canadian decision on international trade. In the third week of September it was announced that no, Canada would not consider a ban on the import of furs from cats and dogs. Europe has imposed such a ban and so has the U.S. Why not Canada?

An internal memo, obtained by the Canadian Press on March 26 under the Access to Information Act, written to Agricultural Minister Gerry Rtiz, said, “A ban could have implications for the farmed fur industry in Canada and for Canada’s position against banning the Canadian seal products by other countries.”

This has opened the door for animal protection groups to link the use of dog and cat fur with the seal hunt issue. And that’s ironic, since so far as I know there is no proof that Canada imports either dog or cat fur. Some years ago some of us looked for it in fur coats and trim that looked suspicious. Mostly it was goat and rabbit fur, but no fur from domestic dogs or cats was found. It may be there; no one knows and Canadians deserve to know, just as much as Europeans and Americans, but that is of no concern to Ottawa.

Blogging off,


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