A Bit Of Nonsense From All Sides Of The Great Seal Hunt Debate
The other day the National Post published a feature article by a reporter (one Peter Kuitenbrouwer) who had clearly researched the Canadian seal hunt in depth, spent time with hunters and in their communities, and spoken to people with a variety of perspectives on the hunt. Perhaps predictably for such an emotive issue, there was a bit of nonsense on all sides, but the piece still managed to give a rich and nuanced picture of seal hunting and the controversies surrounding it.
One of the people Kuitenbrower spoke to was the Honourable (and reliably feisty) John Crosbie, formerly a minister in the Clark and Mulroney governments and now Lieutenant-Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador. Crosbie was supposedly wearing not only a sealskin hat and coat for the interview but also his “goddamned seal-skin underwear”, though I don’t believe Kuitenbrouwer checked. Crosbie defended the seal hunt in characteristically blunt terms:
“There has been a seal fishery in Newfoundland for 3,000 years, long before the English got here,” Mr. Crosbie says. “You became a man in those days when you went out on the seal hunt, and that’s why we are not going to be bullied into giving it up. Today, people don’t want to recognize their background. If Canadians haven’t got backbone enough to withstand criticism, tough titty.”
Though I’m instinctively sympathetic to those who would defend their local customs from unsympathetic (and often uncomprehending) outsiders, I wonder exactly what tradition Crosbie is laying claim to. There are now some Mikmaq living on Newfoundland, but the only inhabitants in pre-Columbian times were the Beothuk, the last of whom died of tuberculosis in 1829. European settlers did not join or adopt Beothuk culture; they destroyed and supplanted it, both by accident and design, and any indigenous tradition of sealing died out with the Beothuk themselves.
On the other hand, those same settlers may have brought with them a sealing tradition of their own. Seals have been hunted in northern Europe since stone age times, and I’ve always found it puzzling that the EU is prepared to exempt indigenous groups from its seal products ban on cultural grounds but seems uninterested in the fact that sealing is also an ancestral practice for many non-aboriginal Canadians. Rather than worrying about what was happening in Newfoundland 3,000 years ago, perhaps Crosbie should be claiming this European inheritance for himself and other Newfoundlanders.
However, some of the sealing opponents quoted in Kuitenbrouwer’s piece make Crosbie seem positively reasonable by comparison. One point made in the article is that new regulations require hunters to crush the skull of each seal with a hakapik to put it emphatically out of any misery it might be experiencing. This is a scrupulous animal welfare measure, but it’s naturally a bit messy, and that’s the only thing that matters to certain high-profile critics:
Dan Mathews, a vice-president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., visited Toronto and Montreal earlier this month with Pamela Anderson, the Canadian-born actress, to oppose the hunt.
“This is the most barbaric,” Ms. Anderson told reporters. “They crush the skulls. They just bludgeon them to death. They don’t even put them out of their misery by shooting them.”
This certainly suggests that much opposition to the seal hunt simply boils down to squeamish aversion to the sight of a descending hakapik. Another person Kuitenbrouwer spoke to, a certain Edna Edwards-Lush, hinted at a different form of psychological discomfort with the seal hunt:
“I was a guidance counsellor in Labrador. All the tapes came in. They die in horror for hours. A lot of city people feel we can find other things. I’m one of those rich man’s wives, with satin sheets and cufflinks. The seal hunt is a stain on Newfoundland, it’s a stain on Canada, and it’s going, going, gone.”
If she really thought seals routinely “die in horror for hours”, she had been misled by anti-sealing propaganda, but the more interesting point is the implied contrast between the seal hunt and a life spent among “satin sheets and cufflinks”. I don’t know why Edwards-Lush mentioned the satin sheet factor unless her real problem with seal hunting was that she saw it as too gruesome and primitive, in some sense too vulgar, to be allowed to happen under the nose of a rich man’s wife.
But unless Edwards-Lush is a vegetarian, she probably sits down more than once a day to feed on parts of animals that were killed and butchered for her nutriment and gustatory pleasure. Perhaps the great virtue of the seal hunt is that it brings the basic procedures that support our omnivorous habits out of cloistered slaughterhouses and into the open, reminding us that our position atop the food chain entails daily orgies of bloodshed. Fortunately, they’re just animals.