The PR problems of Canada's 'other' seal hunt

The Inuit, who depend on seals for food, seek a market for the skins

Ever since the first contact with "the West," going back to early European explorers like Martin Frobisher in the 1570s, the question for the Inuit has been, "What can we sell to the world?"

As dependent on imports as ever, the people of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, in the eastern Arctic, are asking the same question today. But one of the potentially most promising answers - expanding the sealskin trade - is entangled in the international politics of hunting.

The Inuit efforts to expand this sector are being tracked by international experts as a test case of indigenous economic development. As a recent Worldwatch Institute magazine report noted, the Inuit "now have what may be a unique opportunity: a chance to create a self-sustaining economy in a region relatively insulated from the intense population and resource pressures that jeopardize indigenous cultures in so many other parts of the world."

But closer to home, the Nunavut sealing strategy is about survival.

In an interview in his office at the Legislative Assembly here, Peter Kilabuk, territorial minister for sustainable development, scribbles out a simple bar chart to demonstrate how Nunavut could nearly triple its volume in sealskins traded - without one more bullet being fired. But Mr. Kilabuk acknowledges that the people of Nunavut face a public relations struggle. The hunters "have been somewhat misunderstood in their efforts to maintain traditional lifestyles. The southern public has not been educated well enough to support this."

The goal in Nunavut is to build consumer demand for the furs in order to push up prices, which will in turn make it economic to prepare for sale skins of animals already being hunted for food.

To this end, an eight-piece "Nunavut collection" of sealskin garments will be on display this Thursday at the North American Fur & Fashion Exposition (NAFFEM) in Montreal.

CALL it Canada's other seal hunt. The annual springtime clubbing of photogenic white harp seal pups off the coast of Newfoundland has been the focus of a perennial media campaign by international environmental organizations. Europeans, who once craved Canada's furs enough to justify perilous trading voyages by Frobisher and others, have in intervening centuries discovered central heating. They have largely turned their backs on sealskin. In the United States, imports of seal products have been illegal since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972.

All this leaves the people of Nunavut immensely frustrated.

"So many people misunderstand the way that our hunt up here is different from the one in Newfoundland," says Monica Ell, owner of Arctic Creations, a cottage enterprise that produces sealskin coats, mitts, and other garments. Her designs will be among those on display in Montreal.

Inuit hunt seals primarily for food, for one thing. "The skins are a byproduct," Kilabuk stresses. The animals are not clubbed but shot with rifles. Humane hunting practices are "taught to very small children, and this is enforced by parents and elders," he adds. And the Inuit pursue, in small boats rather than "factory" ships, a different species, the ringed seal, which, they insist, is not endangered.

"The trade barriers are not based on conservation but on the concerns of the animal rights people," says Larry Simpson, the territorial government's point man on the sealing strategy. "We want to make use of the sealskins." Indeed, from a Nunavut perspective, the moral issue isn't one of cruelty to animals but of making the fullest use of animals that have already been killed. The harsh climate here gives new meaning to the maxim, "Waste not, want not." Arctic peoples rely on animals for food and clothing - meat and skins and furs - because so few plants are available.

About 20,000 seals are hunted in Nunavut annually. As food they have an imputed value calculated at $5 million (Canadian; US$3.4 million) - not insignificant in this poor territory. The meat is not sold commercially but is traditionally shared by the hunter. "If I got a couple of seals, four or five families would share in the meat," says Kilabuk. "We share everything."

Of those 20,000 seals harvested, the skins of only 6,000 to 7,000 are sold. The problem, as it appears here, is that lack of demand keeps prices too low - as little as C$15 (US$10) per pelt - to justify the manual labor of preparing the skins for sale - scraping them clean and stretching them on drying frames for several days.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is up for reauthorization this year in Washington. One way life could be made easier for the Inuit would be for the US Congress to harmonize the law with the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is seen by some as more scientifically grounded and which allows regulated trade in species that are not endangered.

Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, however, goes further. "We'd rather they not have the law," he said in a recent interview - for which he wore a sealskin vest, a frequently seen political fashion statement among officials in Iqaluit. The present law is "really an impediment to world trade."

"There's one comment that always bugs me," Ms. Ell observes. "People say they don't want to buy sealskin because of fear of getting red paint thrown at them. Well, I don't think a lot of people go around carrying red paint, personally."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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