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Hunting for the right words: Inuit seal hunting in Cumberland Sound is a world away from Pamela Anderson's tube top.


It feels clean and good to be out in the openness of Cumberland Sound. No mosquitoes. Just skywaterskywatersky. Icebergs. Seagulls. The gentle rocking lulls me and I fight to keep my eyes open, not wanting to miss a second of this day.

Joanasie Karpik, elder and hunter, looks back over his shoulder at us and chuckles. Maybe he's checking to see that no one has fallen in, or that we're not scared, or maybe he finds the situation humorous - seven Qallunaat squeezed into his boat, all bundled up against the July wind. Or perhaps he's laughing at the delight of the sun and the sky and the water. Joanasie's 15-year-old grandson, Markus, clad in a baseball cap, parka and track pants, huddles at the back of the boat, fiddling with the motor. Leelee, his 10-year-old grandson, is fast asleep in the cabin up front. I don't have the nautical language to fully describe what's happening, nor do I have words to understand this moment. So, I'm quiet.

I'm one of Joanasie's seven passengers, each with a camera, eager to capture our first seal hunt. We're part of a group of 25 students and instructors, with the University of Manitoba's Panniqtuuq Bush School. The six-week-long program takes place in and around Panniqtuuq or Pangnirtung or Pang, a Baffin Island community of 1300 people. We learn about contemporary and historical Inuit cultural politics and environmental issues through workshops, lectures and hands-on activities such as seal hunting. Peter Kulchyski, a native studies professor at the University of Manitoba, started the course 14 years ago to show students that the Arctic is Inuit homeland, and not just a barren tundra playground for geologists, archeologists, mining companies and adventure seekers.

Southern cameras have trained their lenses on Canada's seal hunt since 1922, beginning with Robert Flaherty's silent film, Nanook of the North. In 1977, French actress Brigitte Bardot hugged a stuffed white harp seal pup on a Newfoundland ice floe and so began Europe's focus on seal products and the era of celebrity involvement. Inuk artist and writer Alootook Ipellie's 1993 short story, "After Brigitte Bardot," appeared in his book Arctic Dreams and Nightmares. Ipellie's narrator observes the theatrics of the photo-op. He wonders how Bardot ended up fighting for the rights of baby harp seals when "France has never even seen a single seal in its entire history." Clearly frustrated, Ipellie's narrator states, "If I had realized Brigitte Bardot was going to destroy the seal industry, I would have taken her for a long ride in my dog team that day and told her about the realities of our lives as hunters and gatherers. But I am not sure she would have comprehended what I would have told her."

In 2009, the European Union banned imports of all products and processed goods derived from seals. Targeting the massive East Coast seal hunt, which is responsible for 85 per cent of the Canadian harp seal harvest, the ban doesn't apply to products derived from traditional Inuit hunts, such as the one I'm experiencing. But the Inuit are concerned. Despite being exempted from the 1983 European ban on the import of white-coat and blueback seal pelts, they suffered. Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami is an organization that represents the Inuit in Labrador, Quebec, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. In a press release, the group noted that the drop in the price of sealskins as a result of the 1980s ban undermined the Inuit economy and imposed far-reaching hardships on Inuit families, including a significant rise in social problems.

According to Daniel Shewchuk, Nunavut's environment minister, the territory's sealers harvest some 35,000 seals per year, of which about 10,000 are sold on the open market. So Inuit groups are suing the EU over the ban, arguing that the seal hunt is neither inhumane nor environmentally harmful.

Pamela Anderson, the former Baywatch star and advocate for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), is today's Bardot. To launch her new "eco- and animal-friendly" clothing line, she appeared in panties and a tube top with "THE SEAL HUNT SUCKS" emblazoned across her chest. At the Sundance Film Festival, superstar Paris Hilton sported a T-shirt that read: "Club Sandwiches--Not Seals."

Skywaterskywatersky. Iceberg. Iceberg.

I point at things and ask Joanasie in self-conscious Inuktituut, "Kisuuna?"

"Naujaq." Seagulls.

We glide past a cliff busy with beating wings. Returning home to their nests, the birds dive down and swoop low along the water before flapping and wheeling up into the sky. I remember a scene in Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden in which the author describes his friend Anaviapik's experiences visiting London, England for the first time. His point of comparison for apartment buildings was gull cliffs. "How amazing that the Qallunaat live in cliffs. I would never be able to find my way here without you," Anaviapik remarks.

I bring my lens to Panniqtuuq; our instructor Peter Kulchyski calls it the "colonial gaze." I see what I know. What I don't know, I have trouble seeing. I don't have the lexicon that fits this place. My vocabulary is of the south, of cities, books and university classrooms. What is a seal? I'm not sure that I thought about it before today.

"Nattiq!" cries Natalie, one of my classmates whose binoculars are glued to her eyes. I look, but just see skywaterskywaterskywater. Collectively, we hold our breath. I squint and try to use my peripheral vision. Useless. I've been raised in a society where we look straight ahead, so my peripheral vision is weak. "There!" I see a tiny black shape on the water. Pfffft. A shot echoes and a bullet skims the water. The black shape dives down. Nattiq.

On its Olympic Shame 2010 webpage, PETA greets visitors with a cartoon image of a bloody seal pup with Xs for eyes. The caption reads: "Boycott Canadian Maple Syrup, Stop the Seal Slaughter!" PETA encourages Americans and others to boycott Canadian maple syrup as a way to speak up against cruelty to baby seals, for whom "life isn't so sweet."

PETA's campaign is meant to target the commercial East Coast hunt, not Inuit sealing. But their messages aren't explicit in making this differentiation. PETA writes: "During Canada's annual seal massacre, hundreds of thousands of baby seals are shot or have their skulls crushed, all for the sake of 'fashion.' Sealers routinely hook seals in the eye, cheek, or mouth to avoid damaging the pelt, then drag the seals across the ice, in many cases without checking to ensure that they are unconscious." PETA doesn't mention that while hunting baby seals is allowed, hunting whitecoat seals - newborn harp seals are white for about 12 days - has been illegal in Canada since 1987.

In a workshop on climate change, a classmate asks an elder how global warming is affecting animals.

"Land or sea?"

"Umm ... sea, I guess."

"Which animals?"

"Seals ..."

"But which kind of seals?" asks the interpreter, exasperated by the questioner's lack of precision.

"Okay, okay, nattiq."

Today, in this boat, we're hunting nattiq (ringed seal). Not qairuli (harp seal) nor ujjuk (bearded seal). Today, sliding through skywaterskywaterskywatersky of Cumberland Sound, we're hunting nattiq.

As part of our course, Tauki, Taina, Ooleepa and Alookie teach us to work sealskins. Swatting at clouds of mosquitoes, they spend hours patiently scraping and stomping and crumpling and scraping again until a dried skin is transformed into supple leather and glowing fur. They teach us that well-made clothing is a matter of life and death in the Arctic. Sealskin is warm and waterproof, for the summer. Caribou parkas are for the winter.

Back at camp, our nattiq is cooked up as a stew with onions, potatoes, carrots and Lipton's soup mix, to become dinner for 40 people. We gather around the pot. Hats are removed and we say grace. Warm meat and thick broth fill my belly, and I'm thankful.

With a particular interest in language, Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon learned as many words in Inuktituut as possible during her summer school program in Panniqtuuq. The sealskin she worked with the help of Taina, Oleepa, Alookie and Tauki hangs on her living room wall.

Image: Hunting, Joe Talirunili (from near Pavirnituq, Nunavik) 1963, stonecut, 72 x 56 cm. Courtesy of Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, gift of Glen E. Cumming, 1982.

RELATED AIRTICEL: Commercial Hunt--Facts and FAQs

WHEN PEOPLE TALK about Canada's seal hunt, they are usually referring to the controversial one that takes place each year off the Atlantic coast - not the Inuit traditional seal hunt.

Here are a few facts and frequently asked questions about this commercial hunt that is the focus of the 2009 European ban.

* Harp seal quota for 2010 hunt: 330,000

* Harp seal quota for 2009 hunt: 280,000

* Estimated size of the seal herd off Atlantic Canada: 5.6 million

* Price for best seal pelts in 2006: $105

* Price for best seal pelts in 2007: $62

* Price for best seal pelts in 2008: over $30

* Price price for seal pelts in 2009: $15

What about white seal pups?

Whitecoats are newborn harp seals. Most Canadians can recall pictures of whitecoated seal pups being clubbed. The images were so inflammatory that Canada banned all hunting of whitecoats and bluebacks (otherwise known as hooded seals) in 1987.

Young harp seals lose their white coats (and their protection) at about 12 to 14 days of age. After that, they're fair game for hunters, although they're usually about 25 days old before they're hunted. Most harp seals taken are under the age of three months.

Are seals killed properly?

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says seals are routinely clubbed or shot and left to suffer on the ice. A 2002 report in the Canadian Veterinary Journal found that 98 per cent of hunted seals it examined had been killed properly.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says the club, or hakapik, used by many sealers is "an efficient tool" that kills "quickly and humanely." The Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing in Canada found that clubbing, when properly performed, is at least as humane as killing methods in commercial slaughterhouses. Opponents say clubbing often isn't "properly performed."

The federal government acknowledges that it has laid more than 200 charges against sealers since 1996.

How does the seal hunt benefit Canada?

The federal government says the landed value of seals exceeded $16.5 million in 2005, providing a "significant" source of income for thousands of sealers. Seal amounts to only a fraction of the $600-million Newfoundland fishery. But for some sealers, it represents up to one-third of their annual income.

IFAW describes the contribution of sealing to Newfoundland's GDP as "trivial" and says after costs and indirect subsidies (patrolling the hunt, upgrading plants, promoting the hunt, developing new markets for seal products and supporting research to find new products), Canadians would "likely find that the hunt actually costs the Canadian taxpayer money."

Don't seals eat cod?

Yes, harp seals do eat cod, among other things. But both sides now appear to agree that seals and cod can coexist.

Adapted from

RELATED AIRTICEL: EU Ban Sparks Controversy

* In 2009, the European Union banned imports of all products and processed goods derived from seals. It exempts products derived from traditional hunts carried out by Inuit in Canada's Arctic, as well as those from Greenland, Alaska and Russia.

* Canada has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization over the decision, saying the Canadian hunt meets internationally accepted humanitarian, scientific and environmental standards.

* Inuit from Canada and Greenland are suing the EU over its ban.

* PETA claims that it targets the East Coast commercial hunt. Visit

I decided to do this baby seal ad for PETA because I feel I have a responsibility to let people know that fur is not for wearing. We're not cavemen anymore.

- Kelly Osbourne, PETA spokesperson

I don't understand why they have to commit this act of brutality and barbarity. It's not necessary. It's so easy to substitute, so I have some fabulous fake furs in my closet.

- Paris Hilton, PETA spokesperson
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Author:Lennon, Kathryn Gwun-Yeen
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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