The issue of the Canadian seal hunt is a controversial one. It is a battle of animal rights versus First Nations rights, at least for the arctic seal hunt.
In 2009, the European Union banned the import of seal products. The legislation was one of the most non-partisan bills to pass through the European Parliament. Believing the issue to be massively popular amongst EU citizens ahead of the June chamber elections, some 550 deputies voted in favour of the ban, with just 49 opposed. In the wake of the ban, prices for sea pelts, the mainstay of Inuit trade, collapsed. Though the European legislation offered a partial exemption for the Inuit hunt, the details of the exemption are not clear, and it was developed without the input, or support, of Canada’s Inuit.
There are at least 8 million harp seals in the world, including several million in the Canadian high Arctic. The harp seal has never been an endangered species. Though the total Canadian seal hunt is authorized to take 275,000 seals a year, only about 3% of the catch has been taken by Inuit in the north. Most of that hunt is concentrated around the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
The Saint Lawrence hunt is the one that most people are familiar with, with the images of blood-smeared ice floes and the iconic images of the baby whitecoats, still used in almost all campaigns against the seal hunt, even though whitecoat hunting has been banned since 1987. The Saint Lawrence hunt is easy for media to access, and it’s the largest hunt, so it forms the basis of how people think of the hunt.
The Inuit hunt is different. It is still largely done in the traditional way. Though the seal hunt is important for traditional subsistence living, it has also become important in the modern world as a source of income for the Inuit people. For many communities, the only source of money is to be gleaned from hunting, in particular seal hunting. The European trade formed a large part of their economy, though the Canadian government is now pursuing Asian markets in the wake of the collapse of the European one. Without the economic benefits from the seal trade, many Inuit would have to give up their traditional lifestyle, and abandon the north for other areas in order to survive.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) is the national voice of 55,000 Inuit living in 53 communities across northern Canada. On the occasion of the filing of Inuit lawsuit against the EU, Mary Simon, President of ITK, said:
“Inuit have been hunting seals and sustaining themselves for food, clothing, and trade for many generations. No objective and fair minded person can conclude that seals are under genuine conservation threat or that Inuit hunting activities are less humane than those practiced by hunting communities all over the world, including hunters in Europe. It is bitterly ironic that the EU, which seems entirely at home with promoting massive levels of agri-business and the raising and slaughtering of animals in highly industrialized conditions, seeks to preach some kind of selective elevated morality to Inuit. At best this is cultural bias, although it could be described in even harsher terms. It should also be more than a little disturbing to all the citizens of the EU that, despite advance warning by their own lawyers, its EU lawmakers registered no inhibitions about adopting laws that are legally defective.”
The case continues to wind its way through European courts. At the same time, Canada has filed a World Trade Organization challenge of the European ban. The Inuit are hopeful that the ban will be overturned, and they can continue their traditional way of life.