February 23, 2016
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of bill S-208, An Act Respecting National Seal Products Day. I would like to thank Senator Hervieux-Payette for her longtime support for, and defense of the seal industry in Canada. It is difficult for me not to get emotional in discussing the subject of this bill, since I have been privileged, as has Senator Hervieux-Payette, to have lived and hunted with the Inuit so I know this subject well. To me, this bill is about another step in restoring the credibility and dignity of the Inuit, around this issue of sealing. While I will confine my remarks to the Inuit and my region, I would like to strongly express my great respect for the sealers of the St. Lawrence, the Magdalens and the Atlantic sealers, those in Newfoundland and Labrador in particular. I hope they can benefit from this bill as well as the Inuit. Why do I get emotional about this? Because I know from my seal hunting friends how dispiriting it was for proud, independent, respected hunters to quickly lose the market for their pelts and be told that it was because sealing was considered to be cruel and inhumane. This resulted in the decline of a traditional renewable resource economy of the Inuit.
I also get emotional because I know full well how hazardous and demanding seal harvesting is in the Arctic. Last April, a well-respected and beloved local hunter where I live, Sandy Oolayuk, never came back from spring seal hunting at Ward Inlet, near Iqaluit. This was a devastating blow to our community in the midst of our annual festival celebrating the coming of spring called Toonik Tyme. Also, just three weeks ago, on a minus 30 degree day, Mosesee Kownirk’s harpoon, snowmobile and sled were found at the floe edge, where he’d been hunting seals for his family. Mosesee is believed to have slipped into the sea while recovering a seal.
And there are many more. Let me take a moment to explain a little bit about how I came to know about seals and seal harvesting. My first summer in the north, I was invited to go out on the land to a fishing spot, Iqalugarjuk, in Pangnirtung fiord, by the late Meeka Kilabuk and her family. It was the summer of 1975 and Meeka’s brother, Josephee, was given responsibility for taking care of an ill-dressed and ill-prepared for the cold white guy from the south – that was me. We travelled in sub-zero waters and sat on the floor in the bow of a canvas and wood 26 foot freighter canoe. How cold I got after a day of travelling in those frigid waters! Seawater in the Arctic is actually below zero in temperature, and in that wooden canvas-covered freighter canoe, I was cold to my bones. My ski jacket with no hood was useless and my leather boots did not help keep my feet warm at all. Josephee, our leader, spotted a seal and shot it. As it was being brought into the canoe, and expertly butchered, his wife Annie started up the Coleman stove to boil some Lipton’s vegetable soup for that fresh seal meat. Upon eating the fresh cooked seal meat, I almost immediately felt powerful warmth surging through my blood vessels like molten metal, warming my hands and feet and giving me energy and a great feeling of well-being. That seal meat was like a tonic, which warmed me from head to toe. It amazed me. Power food, I thought. And it is.
Meeka went on to become a famed seamstress. In 2008, she was awarded first place for the North American Fur and Fashion Exhibition in Montreal Student Design Award and the following year, was recognized again with second place. After graduating in 2009, Meeka was chosen as one of eight finalists from 300 worldwide entries in the International Fur Trade Federation’s REMIX competition for emerging designers. This accomplishment was rewarded with the opportunity to return to Milan to study and work with international fashion and fur trade members, and marked the first time an Inuk woman from Canada was a finalist in this prestigious competition.
Later, after that first memorable experience discovering seal meat, I learned the great art and challenge of hunting seals on the spring sea ice. I know Senator George Baker knows this, because he has hunted seals on the ice. And he knows how nutritious and healthful it is. So does my colleague Senator David Wells and so does my friend Senator Charlie Watt.
Stalking seals that lie by their seal holes in the spring sun is very challenging, for the seal can see and hear and smell you as you stalk. I used the traditional white blind – the taluaq. One only has one chance to shoot the seal in the head at 200 yards in blinding bright sunlight. Although I was 28 years old at the time, I was feted like an adolescent celebrating his first hunt when I brought back my first seal. Seals provided heat, light, clothing and sustenance for Inuit for millennia. Like many Aboriginal cultures, it was important to harvest only what was needed and to ensure that nothing was wasted. Seal fat was rendered into oil for a traditional crescent-shaped stone lamp, called a qulliq, while the skin was used for everything from clothing to boots, tents, and harpoon lines. Even the bones were repurposed into tools and utensils, while the bladders were used to make floats for harpoon lines.
Seals are hunted respectfully and humanely by Inuit. Today, northern communities buy meat, fruit and vegetables from southern Canada that must be flown in over great distances and at great expense. So-called country foods, like seal meat, are a healthier, more nutritious option than most southern food. It’s got all the vitamins and nutrients of lettuce and tomatoes and much more. Seal is the best omega oil you can find. It’s part of my daily diet and it’s made in Canada. Senator Greene Raine knows all about the benefits of seal oil and omega. Just look at her.
For Inuit to harvest and eat country food makes economic sense and is a very healthy food choice. We should encourage this, in a land where junk food and smoking are sadly endemic. Today, sealskin continues to be a very popular choice for clothing in the north and is becoming increasingly in-demand in southern markets. The Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association recently examined the sales of seal products at southern events such as the recent Northern Lights Conference here in Ottawa and fashion shows. They found that there had been a 25% increase in sales over sales from the previous two years. In a recent raw material sale in Iqaluit, the community had access to 100 pelts, which were sold in approximately one hour. Indicating a need and a demand for raw materials. The Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, which is well placed to promote marketing of seal products made by Inuit, will soon be hosting another sale that will offer 700 pelts to various communities to increase the availability to designers across Nunavut.
Despite this encouraging news, the seal industry has been adversely affected for decades after being severely maligned by mainstream media reports rooted in ignorance and a misguided European Union regulation, banning the import of Canadian seal products. Inuit were portrayed as savage; the seal hunt was labeled a massacre, a slaughter by reckless, gleeful barbarians. This harsh language has been deeply hurtful to the Inuit, who have a spiritual relationship with the land and who hunt seals and other marine and land animals respectfully and effectively. However, Greenpeace, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and all the celebrities, including Brigitte Bardot, a woman I worshipped as a goddess in my younger days, and Pamela Anderson (though she’s no Brigitte Bardot), were very successful in seriously damaging the market for seal pelts without offering any reasonable alternative to the Inuit, whose very existence in their harsh ecological niche is predicated on hunting animals.
This has led to the dangerous over population of seals, which are gobbling up tonnes of our valuable fish products. The 2010 EU ban on Canadian seal products was implemented on the notion that it caused undo pain and suffering to the animals. When this was challenged by Inuit of Canada, the General Court of the European Union stated in its April 25, 2013 ruling that the claim that the EU ban drastically reduces the market for seal products were “general in nature and not substantiated” and, as such, these claims “[did] not demonstrate that the Inuit communities have suffered harm which is disproportionate compared with the objective pursued by the basic regulation.”
Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated President Cathy Towtongie expressed her outrage at this ruling by stating: ‘Respect for Indigenous Peoples in the contemporary world means accepting that Indigenous Peoples are best positioned to know their self-interests. It is arrogant and condescending for an EU court to claim to know better particularly when it is abundantly clear that the seal ban adds to the difficult economic and social challenges being faced by Inuit. It amounts to an attack on our way of life.’ I saw the devastating impact of this ban and the subsequent slump in the price – it was a cruel blow to a proud and self-reliant people. But now things have changed. The Europeans, I believe, now understand the devastating impact their ban had on indigenous harvesters and are now allowing seal products into their huge markets via an exemption for products harvested by Aboriginals. I am confident that the Inuit will capitalize on that opportunity. Also, I am happy that Environment and Climate Change Canada has given Nunavut-based organizations $150,000 that has enabled them to resume marketing to the EU through the granted Aboriginal exemption on seal products. The Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association, for example, is hoping to tour a recent exhibition featuring the use of sealskin in the contemporary arts scene internationally. I believe many of you have been to Seal Day on the Hill in previous years, and some have even modeled beautiful seal fashion creations. I am confident Inuit will leap into the fashion world with stunning new designs and arresting creations, while also expanding their market for the rejuvenating benefits of seal oil and seal meat…and this bill will encourage that to happen. I also wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to our former MP, Leona Aglukkaq. As Canada’s representative on the Arctic Council, from the first time she represented Canada in Greenland in 2008, Leona stood up for sealers. It was her quiet diplomacy, which led to the European Union application for Observer status to the Arctic Council being put in abeyance to determine whether the EU would make efforts to meet the prerequisite of being respectful of indigenous rights in the Arctic. I hope that she will write her memoirs on how she persuaded Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a deal with the Europeans to reconsider their approach to the Inuit, in particular. It was that deal that led to the breakthrough we are celebrating in this bill. That deal is why we are able to finally give meaning and respect to the Aboriginal seal hunter. Qujannamiik. Thank you.