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Canadian Projects

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!)

Why the Inuit defend the seal hunt

Published 08/23/10

To ban or not to ban — that is the question!

The breaking news late in the afternoon of August 19 was bewildering. It appeared, according to news quotes from Canadian fisheries minister Gail Shea, that the European Union (EU) ban on importing products from Canada’s east coast seal hunt had been overturned.

Presumably Shea, a passionate advocate for seniors, is a fine and decent person, but she is regarded by Ottawa insiders as an inexperienced political lightweight, and nothing in her biography (beyond coming from Prince Edward Island, home to diminishing fisheries) qualifies her as an expert on either her portfolio or the legalistic intricacies of EU procedures.

A spokesperson for the European Commission, executive arm of the EU, later clarified that the ban is still in place and has come into effect, but will not apply to the plaintiffs, including Greenland and the Canadian Inuit. A lawyer for the plaintiffs disagreed, and so it goes, with conflicting views I’ll let others sort out.

What is clear is that the Canadian Inuit and the Canadian government consider the ban to be “completely unfair” and represents “flagrant discrimination.”

The ban actually does not include products that derive from the Inuit traditional hunt, a hunt that is not even directed toward the same species of seal that is killed in the massive commercial seal hunt conducted on ice floes off Canada’s east coast early each spring. In fact, it gives the Inuit a monopoly on selling Canadian seal-derived products to Europe.

But facts don’t matter. The belief claimed to be held by the Inuit and other seal hunt proponents is that by greatly diminishing the supply of seal products from a larger source, their own products will go down in value, and stay down. They could be right; there was a decline in value of all seal products when the original European ban on the pelts of very young harp seals (“whitecoats”) was enacted. However, the market — according to the Canadian government, fur industry and seal hunt proponents — rebounded.

But there’s much more going on, in my opinion, always remembering that facts don’t matter much in Canadian politics. One fact is that there is nothing in the ban that impedes the killing or use of any seals by Canadians. Canadians already can’t ship seal products to the United States, potentially a much bigger market than the EU, because the U.S. has exercised its right to pass domestic legislation that prohibits the commercial import of products derived from marine mammals. That never gets mentioned, but does beg the question of why the U.S. ban is not challenged.

All countries pass bans on imports of all manner of products, usually in response to concerns of citizens who, in democracies, vote for politicians who support their concerns. I can’t simply order a handgun from the United States, or legally buy one there and then bring it home across the border, even though — like seal products in Canada — it was legally manufactured, marketed and sold.

What is bothersome to Canada, a huge and thinly populated country very committed to capitalizing on its “natural resources,” is the idea of “others” daring to “interfere” in Canadian affairs. Living next to the United States has generated a collective inferiority complex flavored by resentments countered, not surprisingly, by patriotic zeal for all things Canadian.

It is easy for the federal governments to be seen as championing aboriginal interests by promoting this or that use of wildlife, so far as the federal coffers benefit from the vastly more valuable “resources” of the far north, including oil and mineral deposits and the revenues from shipping through the northwest passage (a sea lane through Canadian Arctic islands that originally was blocked by ice, but is now opening in response to global climate change). Let the Inuit kill seals — oil, natural gas, diamonds, other minerals and shipping fees are where the real money and power reside.

The EU consists of elected politicians who are responsible to their own voters. They have studied the seal hunt and, in sharp contrast to their Canadian counterparts, they know far more about Canada’s commercial east coast seal hunt than do Canadian politicians. The latter don’t need to visit the hunt or inform themselves; they know that on the east coast there is widespread support for the hunt (and resentment toward outside “interference”) and so, de facto, they will support the hunt and demonize the animal protection movement. There is no room for risking seats in Parliament by opposing the seal hunt on any grounds. But there is also no room for European parliamentarians for risking their own elections by opposing the will of the populace. If the populace is wrong, then there is certainly a moral responsibility to take leadership against majority opinion, but when the pro-hunt rhetoric it is seen to be erroneous, there is no reason to ignore the concerns of the electorate. As reflected in their legislation and laws, Europeans are much more opposed to animal abuse than are Canadians.

But the Inuit/government pro-seal hunt argument ignores the European record of animal welfare legislation, preferring to call the EU “hypocritical” for allowing its own forms of animal abuse (with pâté de foie gras, fox hunting and bullfighting most often mentioned), as though two wrongs must make a right. What is not understood by many Canadians is the huge effort being made by Europeans to reduce and eliminate these and other forms of animal abuse. Canada’s federal legislation governing animal abuse is little changed from when it was written in the19th century. It treats animals as objects with no self-interest, and exempts any animal abuse deemed “necessary,” including hunting.

And then there is the “liberal guilt” card to be played. Inuit ancestors settled in what is now Canada thousands of years ago, while the rest of us came much later (and are still arriving, to be sure) but in overwhelming numbers and with access to sophisticated technology creating profound changes that often led to horrific abuse of Inuit and other “aboriginal” peoples. Treaties based on race were made, and too often broken. Understandably, the collective guilt of both ancestral and ongoing unfair treatment is utilized in propaganda used by the Inuit. On one hand, “aboriginal” people want the same things we all want, but on the other hand, they quite understandably want the special status their ancestors signed on to in good faith, generations ago.

But the distinction is meaningless in the EU, where humans settled far earlier than they did in the Western Hemisphere, with unbroken occupancy extending back to the days of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals. Aboriginal people in Canada are usually, if at times grudgingly, allowed to sell cigarettes without charging federal taxes, or hunt and trap and fish as they please or within the regulations they formulate for themselves, and they want to continue to have such privileges, fearing “assimilation” if not allowed to exercise such “rights.” But the system does not work very well (race-based law usually does not) and all of us who are compassionate enough to worry about animal welfare certainly agree that it is tragic that such a disproportionate number of aboriginal people in Canada live in abject poverty, are incarcerated, suffer from substance abuse, or have chronic health problems.

It is not that they live as their ancestors did, and the Arctic, for all its wide open spaces, is certainly connected to the rest of the planet via TV and computer and Internet services. But it is profoundly different from the urban areas where so much opposition to animal abuse is strongest. The environment is incredibly harsh, and one can imagine the resentment of someone who experiences a six-month night or minus-60-degree weather in a treeless and isolated vastness, or the sky-high costs of any prepared foods or manufactured goods when available, being told what to do or how to live by someone living in Berne, London, Paris or Berlin.

But the European ban does not do that! Not one whit. The restrictions are entirely on what the people within the EU can do, and have no bearing whatsoever on anything that happens in northern Canada. Yes, it will affect the marketplace, and while there is no shred of evidence that it will do so to the detriment of the Inuit’s ability to earn as much, or more, money as usual from selling seal-derived products, perhaps it could. Marketing any product is a gamble, and products based on fashion have a particularly potential volatility.

You can’t have it both ways. Prior to European influence, “subsistence” living was never based on international importing and exporting, but rather on barter and sharing, and was consequently much less damaging to the environment. But if you want to shed that way of living in favor of international capitalism, other factors come into play.

It is ironic, but in trying to stop the EU from doing what it wants to do, Canada is doing the very thing it objects to — interfering with the internal affairs of others. But the EU ban is not doing that and it is also ironic that the Inuit, who stand to benefit from the ban by virtue of being excluded from it, thus having exclusive access to whatever market exists, are so bamboozled.

While the controversy about the EU ban on seal products continues, remember that we are working constantly to end the global wildlife trade wherever we can.
In fact, due to our strong participation in the recent CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Doha, Qatar, we were able to prevent resumed trading in stockpiled ivory — which would have lead to a dramatic increase in poaching of elephants and rhinoceroses for their tusks and horns.
Help us to continue to win victories for the animals!

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