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Inuit on sealing: We want your mind, not your money

Opinion Editorial: March 11, 2009

This year, protesters will no doubt take satisfaction in knowing that Belgium and the Netherlands have already defied world trade laws to ban the import of seal products and that the European Union Parliament is being pressed to do the same. Last week, an EU commission voted to amend the proposed legislation so it would, in effect, be a total ban on the import of seal products. Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea reacted by vowing that Ottawa would take immediate action at the World Trade Organization in the event the amended legislation is passed later this year by the EU Parliament. I commended Canada's strong statement and repeated our intent to continue our traditional hunting practices.

While the target of animal-rights protesters is the seasonal killing of seals by commercial fishermen on the ice floes around Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the impact of the protests threatens, once again, to have painful consequences on Inuit communities scattered throughout the Canadian Arctic. Inuit in Greenland will also feel the pain.

Inuit are a maritime people. The sea and sea ice are our front yard. They are as much a part of our way of life as the family farm has been for the agrarian societies of this world. For most of us, the most important and reliable food since our arrival in the Arctic in ancient times has been the seal. We have hunted seals to sustain life itself in a world that is as harsh as it is beautiful. 

We have harvested seals to feed ourselves, our children, our elders and the rest of our people in the Arctic. We have used seals to feed the dog teams that help us to hunt. We have used the pelts of seals to clothe ourselves and, in more recent times, to generate a modest level of cash from sales to the outside world. That flow of cash might not look like much to those who plan the EU's operating budget or who take in millions of dollars from members of the public through anti-sealing campaigns. But, for Inuit hunters, it often makes the difference between being able to pay for the costs of hunting in today's world - rifles, ammunition, a snowmobile and gas - or being rendered sedentary in the community.

For Inuit, hunting is not just about feeding families. It is also about sustaining our unique language and culture in a world that has all too often maligned or devalued them. The teaching of hunting skills from one generation to another is a way we build solidarity between generations and within families. The sharing of country food among households in communities is a way in which we show compassion for those who are ill, infirm or finding it hard to cope. Sharing is a way of reminding ourselves who we are as a people, what we value as a people, and what we have in common with the rest of the world.

Inuit may have been spared some of the gross injustices visited on those who lived or were brought to North America in the centuries that followed the first European explorations. But there is no doubt we were thoroughly colonized and marginalized. And we have suffered, and continue to suffer, from a range of debilitating social problems, including the worst overcrowding, tuberculosis and suicide rates in Canada. In recent years, we have worked hard to rebuild pride and confidence in ourselves, and to negotiate new arrangements with the federal government and development companies to restore an acceptable form of power sharing, and responsibility sharing, in and for the Arctic.

Yet, progress never comes easily and, for every step forward, we risk slipping back. For many Inuit, it is bewildering to witness international campaigns that vilify those who make use of seals to support the well-being of human communities. For our Inuit elders, this seems to be a perversion of a fundamental truth that says the value of human life must be the central touchstone to all systems of religion or ethics.

For younger Inuit, such campaigns seem to be exercises in highly selective and culturally bound sensitivities: It is okay for those who live in rich Western, urban societies to do things that have generated enormous hardships and insult for an indigenous hunting people, while very little self-examination is invested into the conditions of domestic animals processed in highly industrialized fashion for big city supermarkets. It is doubtful that a wild seal living in the Arctic would envy the life prospects of a factory-raised chicken.

Some animal-rights groups, like some governments and legislators in Europe, have been quick to say that their anti-sealing efforts are not aimed at the seal-hunting activities of Inuit, and that seal furs resulting from Inuit hunting should be exempt from such things as import bans. It is hard for Inuit to take any comfort in these promises. These assurances are issued in what appears to be willful ignorance that past anti-sealing activities have destroyed the markets for all seal pelts, whether taken by Inuit or others. They are issued without the prospect of any plausible machinery, methods or communications efforts that would somehow allow Inuit to continue to support themselves and our way of life in the Arctic with a measure of security. No, these assurances are all about salving troubled consciences, not offering respect and reasonable accommodation.

So, for those who will be joining in Sunday's anti-sealing protests, either directly or by sending money to animal-rights groups, the Inuit of Canada invite you to reconsider. Before investing your time, your money and your goodwill in such efforts, perhaps you might first satisfy yourself whether the groups organizing these protests have made any real effort to understand the Inuit way of life, or to take any real steps to avoid inflicting harm on us. Inuit are not seeking your donations. Rather, we ask Canadians to think through this issue, a more difficult but ultimately more enriching path for all of us.

Published on GlobeandMail online, March 11, 2009