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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!)

A Winning Streak for International Ignorance? Does He Have a Point or Two?

Rex Murphy, seal hunt advocate, strikes again

Published 09/03/10

So, here we go again. On Aug. 30, Rex Murphy — famous in Canada for being a hyper-articulate commentator on everything, and fiercely defensive of all things Canadian, including the east coast seal hunt and Alberta oil sands — launched another diatribe against his avowed enemy: us. “Us” in this case includes everyone who is opposed to the seal hunt. Murphy, like the government, fur industry and Inuit, pretty well lumps so-called traditional and modest subsistence hunting for ringed and bearded seals by Inuit hunters with the vast commercial slaughter of whelping harp seals off the east coast early each spring.

The central themes of his most recent rant oddly enough reflect, albeit with his usual sarcasm and overstatement, some concerns of my own.

First, understand that Murphy is determinedly, resolutely and indubitably from Newfoundland while I am from away, being anywhere in the universe that is not Newfoundland. We don’t know Newfoundland like he does. But when he states that we foes of the commercial seal hunt do not know anything, do not know the history of the seal hunt, he overstates. It is a ghastly history of class-based abuse of the working man by capitalism in Dickensian excesses that put profits to the top of the economic pyramid solidly ahead of human, not to mention animal, welfare. Today the infamous sealing captain Abram Kean would be disgraced, charged and, one hopes, incarcerated for abandoning so many sealers on the ice, with 78 dying of exposure, many of the survivors losing limbs to frostbite. But back in 1914 when he did just that, profits championed lives of mere workers. Kean continued sealing and in 1934, after landing his one millionth seal pelt, he received the Order of the British Empire.

In total, 1914 saw the deaths of 234,000 seals and 253 sealers. But at that precise pinnacle in seal hunt lore the young male Newfoundlander was saved from the dangers of the ice by having the option to fight for the same empire that would later honor Kean by facing mustard gas, bullets and bayonets in the trenches of Europe in World War I. Ah, for the good old days.

But things change, like it or not, and in 1949 Newfoundland joined Canada, setting the stage for the annual ritual of pinniped pummelling to become known as the “Canadian” seal hunt, with lots of investment from Norway. Subsequent returns on those investments went back to Norway.

That was then. Assuming Murphy’s knowledge of seal hunt industry does not include the early era’s apathy toward working-class lives, just seal lives, he mentions Loretta Swit as being among celebrities who opposed the seal hunt while knowing nothing about it. I happened to interview Swit by telephone a couple of decades ago, and was not impressed. She attacked the masculinity of the sealers, apparently thinking their only motivation for bashing baby seals was machismo. There was a “right of passage” aspect to the seal hunt, the sort of thing that young males are hormonally more or less driven to do by testing their newfound strengths in adversarial conditions — from extreme sports or street gangs to the military. Shakespeare’s fourth of the Seven Ages of Man:

“Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden, and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth.”

But there was also “tradition,” which some philosophers tell us does not justify abuse (always assuming you agree that mere animals are capable of being abused, and that you care — some people don’t agree and don’t care), and certainly in rural Newfoundland there was economic need. A few years later I saw Swit, who told me she did not eat red meat, in a television commercial for a fast-food burger chain. Given the employment opportunities she enjoyed compared to a Newfoundland and Labrador fisherman during freeze-up, there was no excuse for her to take that gig, and Murphy’s disdain for her is one I am inclined to share. We are all guilty of some minor hypocrisy, but hers was major.

That does not mean that celebrities, including Murphy, can’t have opinions, or lend their names to causes. Where I think the mistake was made, and it is one that Murphy continues to make, is attacking the messenger — the people. Surely the fact that I’ve never been to Rwanda and can’t tell a Tutsi from a Hutu, let alone comprehend the intricacies of their historical animosity, denies me an opinion on the horrific events that unfolded there following the death of President Habyariamana in 1994.

Murphy makes the same error as Swit in assigning those with whom he disagrees with vile motives. And so the European politicians, who unlike their Canadian counterparts have actually looked at both sides of the debate and studied the issue, must be duped. Murphy touchingly believes all he’s told by one side, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, whose blundering deference to short-term political pragmatism gave the very people Murphy so deeply cares about the collapse of the cod fishery. It was a huge source of income for fishers and fish processors until it was gone, the warnings of DFO’s own scientists ignored.

But I have been to Newfoundland and Labrador, and I have broken bread with sealers. So long as you don’t talk seals, and they don’t know who you are, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador richly deserve their reputation for hospitality. But they are, to an ever lesser degree, insular, in all senses of the word. And that produces massive disconnect with the people on the other side of international commerce.

I remember meeting, and liking, a guy named” Bunny” up on Newfoundland’s northern tip. Eventually I was told how he got his nickname. One night, after a few glasses of screech (rum) past prudence, he accepted a bet. A rabbit in a hutch had given birth and the bet was that Bunny, who had yet to earn the moniker, could not swallow a live baby bunny whole. Well, he bet he could. He almost bet his life. The wriggling bunny got stuck in his throat, and he began to gag, this far from the medical amenities urbanites and suburbanites take for granted. He was rushed many miles over rural roads to the hospital at Saint Anthony, population 25,000, where a pair of long forceps removed the obstruction. This was all explained to me with much laughter.

“I guess,” my informant said, presumably alerted by my expression, “that does not seem so funny to you.”

But what I was thinking was how it would sound outside of where we were. I still wonder how would it sound to, say, an earnest university student in Bonn, a housewife in Des Moines, or a singer and actress from Hong Kong. It was one of the latter, someone named Karen Mok, who fell into Murphy’s sights by daring to oppose the commercial seal hunt. She possibly does not know who Abram Keane was, or how to sever the axillary artery of a flipped-over seal in order to bleed it out and help stop the wriggling, or that it is really the meat attached to the scapular that goes into seal flipper pie, or where the name “hakapik” originated let alone how it is used, or what a sculp is. But does it matter?

A friend just returned from visiting family in Nova Scotia, where the DFO wants to slaughter tens of thousands of grey seals notwithstanding their lack of commercial value. Fishermen hate anything that eats fish, the world over, and their political clout still drives DFO policy. Being (gasp!) a vegetarian, my friend had to withstand the usual gibes and taunts, but once folks got to learn that she was not truly demonic, the very ones who had given her a hard time confessed they had never seen a grey seal. They had never even seen a puffin. She had seen both, having an interest that they didn’t share. She asked me why, given that in all other regards her relatives and their friends were good folks, and came to like her, there couldn’t be a dialogue — some sort of agreement.

I fear it’s too late. There are too many Rex Murphys and Loretta Swits tied up to the history of the seal hunt to make it possible. There aren’t demons, but there are self-righteous pedants who ignore the other side’s facts. Ultimately it comes down to facts.

Unlike the times I have been there, Newfoundland and Labrador is no longer a “have-not” province. Whether or not the government assures the profits are fairly distributed, there are enormous profits from oil and hydro-electric production. Not to overstate it, but around the world major fisheries are doomed by greed, and are now scraping the bottom of the food chains in their quest for the last profits to be wrung from the watery depths. The major marine predators — sharks, tuna, billfish and, yes, harp seals — have been greatly depleted from historic numbers, and their major ecological role correspondingly diminished. Even plankton, not only the base of the oceanic food chains, but the main producers of oxygen essential to the very air we breathe, is in decline.

There is no way in which animals (or people) are abused in the interest of profit or tradition that does not see loss of the profit or the tradition when the abuse stops. Sadly, while we might have made progress in finding middle ground that eases such loss without promoting the abuse, it will never happen. Truculence trumps temperance every time. Lines are drawn. Values must be brought into play, facts presented and decisions made. I wish it could be otherwise, but that’s not how human nature works. Just ask Rex Murphy or Loretta Swit.

Blogging off,
Barry Kent MacKay

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