Lands and Environment Opinion

Skin in the game: Tackling misconceptions about Nunavut’s sealing industry

From my experience of living in “southern” Canadian cities, I’ve discovered that there is a huge disconnect between the truth about about seal hunting and the way that it is perceived by southern Canadians. Growing up in Nunavut, sealing was a natural part of life in my community. It never seemed strange, unethical, or cruel to me.

People around the world have long felt passionately about the welfare and protection of seals. Organizations like PETA, WWF, Greenpeace, and the extremist group Sea Shepherd, to name only a few, have long campaigned to have sealskin made illegal and for the seal hunt to be criminalized.

One of the major problems with the approach of these groups is their tendency to create generalization. They lump together all sealing industries, despite the differences in quality, viability, and necessity.

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on Inuit-hunted subsistence and commercial sealing — not industrialized sealing, such as in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Some of the main objections people have towards sealing are that:

  • seal-clubbing is inhumane;
  • seals are an endangered species;
  • killing animals is cruel, and we don’t need meat to survive.

I address these misconceptions below.

‘Seal clubbing is inhumane’

A common myth about seal hunting is that baby seals are clubbed to death. This isn’t true. Not only are the seals not babies (a la veal), but they also aren’t clubbed. They are shot and experience no more suffering than any other hunted animal.

Furthermore, seals are free-range animals — a very popular label in modern, North American food culture. They live full, free lives in their natural habitat before they are killed.

If there is no pain or unnecessary suffering, then it cannot, by definition, be inhumane.

‘Seals are an endangered species’

This is also untrue. The common Harp seal has a strong population in Nunavut, and sustainable levels of harvesting are monitored closely by the Canadian government.

‘Killing animals is cruel, and we don’t need meat to survive’

Many people expressing the view that killing animals is cruel are not vegan or vegetarian themselves. This is ironic, since traditional hunting methods are often very humane compared to the mass slaughter that characterizes modern meat and dairy industries.

If someone is a vegan or vegetarian and believes that killing animals is cruel, that is their personal choice and should be respected. That being said, their perspective is likely seen through a cultural lens of a person not directly connected to the land and food source, and who has never had to hunt for sustenance.

The ‘cuteness’ factor

The most common anecdotal argument against the seal hunt I’ve heard comes from a belief that seals are cute.

Many critics of the seal hunt are not guided by a rational understanding of the facts, but by feelings that killing cute animals must be wrong. They jump to this conclusion without exploring the deeper cultural, social, and economic importance of seal hunting.

If such a subjective argument is to be made, most of the other animals we eat — chickens, cows, and pigs — can also be seen as cute.

Sealskin and the global market

Due to its controversial nature, sealskin is currently an illegal commodity in some parts of the world. This includes countries in the European Union (EU), whose policy towards sales of pelts has wavered back and forth. Many Nunavummiut have lobbied against the ban, and currently, Inuit-hunted sealskin is legal to sell.

Attitudes appear to be easing in North America, as well. While the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act bans the import of sealskin, the law includes an exemption for Indigenous people — something Hunter Tootoo, the Member of Parliament for Nunavut and former federal cabinet minister of Fisheries and Oceans, capitalized on as a political point when he wore his sealskin tie to meet American President Barack Obama.

Eat seal, wear seal

In the last few years, a strong political and social movement has developed in Nunavut to promote traditional use of sealskin. The “eat seal, wear seal”, #sealfie and “seal is the new black” slogans have been used to try to sway public opinion about sealskin.

Many believe that turning the political and social tide towards the acceptance or tolerance of sealskin in mainstream society will happen through educating the public. Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril has been very influential in this, namely through her new award-winning film, Angry Inuk.

Apart from being warm and beautiful, there are many alternative reasons for southern consumers to not only accept but love sealskin. It’s humane and is natural, sustainable, healthy, culturally appropriate, and in many cases, vital for survival in the North.

No skin in the game, no say

Seal hunting may only be one aspect of a larger problem that faces Nunavut — a gap between cultural paradigms. Regardless of policy, the hunt provides food for families across Nunavut, and the selling of skins creates money for local economies. Inuit have hunted seals for millennia, and they will continue to do so; effectively forcing them to stop would be cultural assimilation, knowingly or not.

This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular. Most people live in cities, and don’t relate to the issues at stake; they’ve never had to rely on hunting for food or income, and can’t fully understand the realities of life in the Arctic. Due to this lack of context, decisions about sealing should not be made by these people — especially since their lives are not affected.

Sealskin is natural and ethical, and it provides food, money, warmth and fashion to Nunavut — a region in dire need of global empathy and support. Moving forward, I hope people will begin opening their minds to the idea of sealskin as an ethical commodity, to make an effort to learn about Inuit culture, and try to empathize with the Northern way of life.◉


Photo: istockphoto/sodar99

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