CLYDE RIVER – Joelie Sanguya raised his axe, paused for a moment, then with a swift blow swung it at the frozen seal carcass.
Behind him a chorus of hungry sled dogs filled the arctic air with a cacophony of excited howling and barking in anticipation of a well-deserved dinner.
Sanguya, an Inuit hunter, artist, filmmaker and an expert musher, continued to work his axe on the frozen carcass, removing the head. Then, bracing the seal body with a hook, he used a butcher’s knife to cut through the skin and into the blubber. He was methodical, cutting chunks that looked like oversized cubes, and tossing them aside. “Don’t step in that. It’ll stick to your boots and stink up the tent when it warms up.
“I’ll leave the skin and the blubber for crows and Arctic foxes – dogs only eat the blubber when they’re really desperate,” he explained, returning to his axe to hack at the skinned animal. Dark maroon in colour, the frozen seal meat shattered like pieces of broken pottery with each blow.
He had killed the adult ringed seal earlier that day with a clean shot to the head. Growing up on the north-eastern coast of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, Sanguya, 57, had been taught not to waste anything.
In the past, he would have carefully removed the adult-sized skin to be cleaned, dried and stretched. His wife or another seamstress would have used the naturally waterproof skin to make an anorak, mittens or kamiks (traditional Inuit boots). But Sanguya already had a full set of sealskin garments in the boot of his sled. What he really needed was a bit of money to buy food, ammunition, gas, art supplies, and pay bills.
A good skin used to fetch up to $100. For that price, it was worth the several hours of labour-intensive scraping to remove the blubber and treat the skin. But ever since the European Union even started considering a ban on the seal trade, the price of seal skins had plummeted, depriving hunters like him – who hunt seal for food anyway – of the possibility of selling surplus skins to the village co-op to earn some income.
Sanguya left the skin and blubber on the ice, now a by-product of the hunt. He turned to focus on his hungry dogs. Their barking and howling had become deafening.
Exempt from ban, but not spared
Despite a provision that gives them an exemption from the European Union ban on trade in seal products, Canada’s Inuit say they are already feeling the pinch.
“It’s getting more and more difficult for a hunter to put food on the table,” said Simon Awa, Deputy Environment Minister of Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic.
In May of 2009, the European Parliament passed a bill that will ban the import of seal products. The law passed the European Union assembly by a 550-49 vote and comes into full effect this summer.
Adopted following a relentless campaign by animal welfare activists who oppose the commercial seal hunt – like the one conducted by club-wielding fishermen in Atlantic Canada – the ban contains an exemption for the Inuit of Canada and Greenland who hunt seal for food and still use seal skins to make clothing and footwear.
Awa said past experiences tell him not to trust EU assurances that the ban will not affect the Inuit.
“Back in 1983 the Europeans placed a ban on baby harp seals and at that time we were told that the Inuit would be exempted from the ban. However, when the seal market collapsed, even though there was an exemption for the Inuit, the Inuit also suffered,” Awa said.
“So with this new ban, even though there are some exemptions for the Inuit, we don’t believe in that. We don’t buy that.”
The EU ban has effectively already killed the sealskin market. Last year, at the Fur Harvesters Auction house in North Bay, Ontario, not a single pelt was sold out of 11,500 that were harvested by Inuit hunters in Nunavut, Awa said.
It has all dealt a harsh blow to an already impoverished population. In the last two generations, the Inuit have gone through dramatic and often painful changes to their lifestyles. In many cases they’ve been forced to abandon their semi-nomadic existence for life in settlements. The resulting communities have all the trappings of modern life, but few of its economic opportunities.
Canadian Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette has been lobbying the Canadian federal government to compensate Atlantic Coast fishermen and Inuit hunters for lost income. Just in anticipation of the ban, she says, sealskin prices have plummeted.
“Three years ago, before this war on seal hunters started, they were getting $100 for each skin.
“Right now they get maybe $30,” she said, during a recent trip to observe a traditional Inuit seal hunt near Iqaluit. “This is the income they use this time of the year in order to proceed to other income, like on the East Coast it’s the lobster. Here it would be fishing.”
Hervieux-Payette said the Inuit need a functioning market that has a certain critical mass to sell their sealskins. Without the sealskin market fed primarily by commercial sealing, the EU exemption for the Inuit is meaningless, she added.
The quest for nutrition
“I could say it’s more important than the polar bear, probably more important than the caribou or some other wildlife species in Nunavut, because the seal is used in whole as food source, as clothing, for arts and crafts, for shelter,” he said.
With food prices in the Canadian Arctic up to three or four times higher than in the south, (a loaf of bread that costs $2.99 in a major Canadian city like Montreal, Quebec, costs $8.99 in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut), seal meat is essential to supplement the Inuit diet.
And the food they hunt, “country food” as they call it, is often the only healthy nutrition Inuit families can afford.
To cushion the blow of the seal market collapse, the government of Nunavut has created the Fur Pricing Program. Under this program, Nunavut authorities purchase about 6,000 to 9,000 skins each year, providing about $500,000 in income for hunters – significantly less than they would have received if the seal skin market hadn’t collapsed, according to Awa.
“In the Arctic, because of the permafrost and the severity of the environment we don’t have the luxury of growing vegetables or having a farm,” Awa said.
“What is out there on the tundra is my shopping centre, my grocery store, I have to go there to get my food.”
Country food on the tundra is becoming a moving target. “What appears to be happening is that our grocery store is moving further and further away all the time. Maybe because of the climate change, maybe for another reason.”
Skins go to waste
The Inuit subsistence seal hunt differs from the commercial hunt that has drawn the ire of animal rights activists.
Unlike Atlantic coast fishermen who hunt harp seals to supply tanneries with skins and pharmaceutical companies with Omega-3 fatty acid-rich blubber, the Inuit hunt ringed seals for food to feed their communities.
The hunting methods are different as well. Inuit hunters mostly use high-powered rifles, not clubs, to kill the seals.
It’s labour-intensive to hunt them. In wintertime seals live under the ice, coming up to the surface to breath through holes formed in the cracks between the constantly moving ice fields.
Inuit hunters like Sanguya scour dozens of kilometres of sea ice on snowmobiles or dog sleds in search of seal breathing holes. And once they find one, they have to wait motionless sometimes up to an hour, crouched over the breathing hole in the biting cold, hoping to shoot or harpoon the animal when it comes up to breathe.
The skins have always been a by-product of the hunt, while providing a much-needed source of income.
Spare an animal, devastate a culture
The European Union ban has stirred up a lot of anger in Nunavut.
“I feel it’s very hypocritical to want to save an animal while you’re killing a culture,” said
Diane Giroux, a fashion designer and a seamstress that came to the Arctic hoping to pass on her skills to help Inuit women escape poverty. Taking a break after teaching a fur and fashion design class at Iqaluit’s Arctic College, Giroux expressed her frustration.
“It’s very difficult for the Inuit in general to understand this concept,” she said. “It’s also difficult for us who want to help the Inuit in developing their own place in this world, to make them understand that they have to accept a decision that makes no sense basically.”
Lisa Eetuk Ishulutak, a young Inuit student in the fur design program, said she felt that the European politicians simply hadn’t done their homework.
“I just get so mad,” Ishulutak, 24, said, fighting tears. “They’re [seals] not in danger or anything. It’s not like we’re keeping them in a farm, giving them fat and then killing them and then making money off them. That’s just how we live.”
Canada vs. the EU Ban
Nunavut authorities, however, are worried that the seal hunt ban is just the opening salvo in a cultural war that has pitted urbanized Westerners against East Coast fishermen and Inuit hunters.
“My worst fear is that in addition to the ban on seal skin products in European countries that this ban could have other ripple effects for other wildlife species in Nunavut other than seal,” Awa said. “That would have a devastating effect on economic opportunities, especially for smaller communities that have an unemployment as high as 60 to 80 per cent. Selling seal skin products even though its minimal has big implications for a community, for a family that doesn’t have any other income.”
Canada’s federal government has launched a challenge against the ban at the World Trade Organization.
And in January 2010, Canadian and Greenlandic Inuit organizations filed a lawsuit in the European General court to overturn the ban.
“It is important for Inuit across the Davis Strait to unite and fight this unethical legislation,” said Aqqaluk Lynge, President of Inuit Circumpolar Council (Greenland). “On top of the climate change issue, we must contend with animal rights extremists who fundamentally do not respect our way of life, and who use disinformation to further their cause at our expense.”
In the meantime the government of Nunavut is looking for a long-term solution.
“We are working very hard to find other markets other than the European countries,” Awa said. “For example, we are definitely interested in looking at China, and we are also definitely looking at Russia and other non-European countries and we’re also going to be looking seriously within Canada.”