Inuit fear repeat of boycott that drove some to suicide
CanWest News Service; with files from The Canadian PressWednesday,
March 29, 2006.
IQALUIT, Nunavut - Two dozen kilometres from his home in Iqaluit, Kowmagiak Mitsima threads his snowmobile across the jumbled sea ice of Frobisher Bay, heading for a line of open water in the distance that marks where the seals are.
Mitsima makes the journey several times a week, towing a small fibreglass boat, which he will lower into the frigid water to pluck the seals out after shooting them.
"I've been killing them since I was seven years old," he says, resting his rifle on a chunk of ice to wait for a seal to surface.
"I get them as much as I can, about 100 plus a year. I give sealskin to my aunts. They make something out of it, make kamiqs or pants. I eat the seal meat -- frozen, boiled, dried," he says.
"I'm not really crazy about (grocery store meat). It doesn't give you much energy at all. They got low fat, those chickens."
Decades ago, a full-time hunter like Mitsima would hardly have been unusual. But today, few in Nunavut have the cash to pursue a traditional lifestyle. It is a lingering effect of protests that decimated the northern seal hunt 30 years ago -- and the reason why Inuit today are worried and angry that southern protests are once again attacking their way of life.
The latest salvo came from Pamela Anderson, who requested an audience with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to protest a hunt she called "barbaric."
But if Anderson, a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is the silver screen's newest face of seal-hunt protest, it is Brigitte Bardot, the French actress who catapulted the seal hunt to infamy 30 years ago, who still evokes the most hatred in Nunavut.
"I don't think I will ever forgive a person like Brigitte Bardot," says Peter Irniq, the territory's former commissioner. "She caused a lot of people to commit suicide in the '70s after her campaign."
For thousands of years, the Inuit lived or died by the animals they hunted, which provided their infrastructure, tools and diet. Seals were especially important. Inuit sewed their skins into waterproof mitts, kamiqs and parkas and feasted on their dark, nutrient-rich meat.[snip]
In 1977, at the height of the trade, they sold 48,000 skins at an average price of $25 each. That year, Bardot posed with a white-coated harp seal to protest a hunt she called inhumane, creating an image that ignited a worldwide furor over the seal hunt.
Inuit, recognizing the potential impact to their own way of life, travelled to Europe to argue against the protesters. But their efforts were largely ineffective, and the seal market collapsed.
By the mid-1980s, skins were selling for 50 cents apiece, and Inuit had all but stopped hunting them for profit.
For many Inuit, "that was their sole source of income and when it dried up so did the income," said Glenn Williams, an Iqaluit city councillor who was a fisheries officer when the seal market collapsed. "There were people who could not afford to buy gas anymore, couldn't afford to go out on the land."
Suddenly, ancient Inuit ways were no longer economically compatible with a modern lifestyle.
"It had a devastating impact on not just the economy, but a way of life and food procurement that was absolutely central to Inuit culture," says Frank Tester an associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia who has written on Inuit social history.
"All the ritual, cosmology, belief system, mythology -- that comes from hunting. And when Inuit are no longer hunters because something has happened that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to hunt, then you're having a huge impact on people.
"It would be like our culture -- suppose in 10 years we were thrown out of wage employment and into hunting and gathering. What do you think we'd look like? We'd be a mess."
Today, Nunavut is plagued by diabetes, soaring domestic abuse and one of the highest suicide rates in the western world -- issues the people say are at least partly linked to the demise of the seal trade.
"A lot of men no longer had a lot of things to do in those days -- no jobs," said Irniq. "So a lot of them committed suicide."
The territory has attempted to revive a hunting culture. This year, it will pay $2.8 million to a program that buys tools and transportation for hunters like Mitsima, enabling him to feed his family.
But Nunavut had begun to hope that a re-emergence of the seal market could remove the need for such funding.[snip]
Irniq says if environmental groups truly cared about wildlife, they would focus on an issue that is a serious concern for Inuit: climate change, which is thinning the northern ice and hampering the ability of northerners to survive.
"If we don't do anything about global warming we're all going to be in serious trouble," he says.
"Including the seals and including Brigitte Bardot."
The reality is that the many of the people who are most in tune with the environment - and most concerned about the effects humans are having on it - are traditional hunters, not environmentalists. These are people who are more intimate with the environment than anyone else. Their livelihoods depend on the health every aspect of it, and are more likely to see the effects of environmental damage first hand, long before researchers even know where to look. Unfortunately, it's the McCartney's, the Bardot's and the Andersons that tend to get the publicity.
Another article I read today had a quote I found very interesting.
OTTAWA -- Canada's Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn swung back at anti-sealing celebrities such as Pamela Anderson and Paul McCartney, suggesting they're has-beens and calling them dupes for lucrative animal rights groups.
"They use poor old people like McCartney and Pamela Anderson and Brigitte Bardot," Hearn said yesterday outside a government caucus meeting.
"Some of them haven't got a clue what they're doing. They think this is a great cause and they are just being used. I pity them."I believe Mr. Hearn is completely correct - these celebrities *are* being used, much the same way former PM Martin used his "friendship" with Bono to further his own career. I like to think they mean well, but that they are greatly misinformed (though with the McCartneys also being vegetarian, I suppose they'd be against any form of hunting, anyways). Unfortunately, their actions cause a great deal of harm, not only to the very animals they are trying to protect, but also to their environment, and to the people who depend on them.