Less symbolism, more realism please


When Nunavut’s nine regular MLAs voted as one last week to pass a motion barring the Nunavut Liquor Commission from buying alcohol products from the European Union, even they knew their gesture was futile.

Baffin South MLA Fred Schell admitted as much. “Mr. Speaker, I think that we all recognize that the actions proposed by this motion have a significant degree of symbolism attached to them,” Schell said March 11.

That, more than anything else Schell said that day, illustrates the utter shallowness of Nunavut’s EU liquor boycott. It’s all symbolism and no substance.

But this, perhaps, is appropriate, since the entire issue has never consisted of anything more than an infantile war over symbols and images.

The animal rights fundraising industry, which started this stupid dispute in the 1970s, relies entirely on distorted imagery to make a case against seal hunting that has never been supported by evidence or reason.

“Perception of the seal hunt seems to be based largely on emotion, and on visual images that are often difficult even for experienced observers to interpret with certainty,” the World Wildlife Fund, a respected conservation organization, said in 2005.

But this does not mean that it’s wise for those affected by the EU ban on seal products, passed last year in the European Union, to indulge in their own forms of stupidity.

To that end, it’s worth looking at some hard facts. Nunavut, for example, claims to possess a sealing “industry” just like Newfoundland, Norway, Greenland and Namibia.

But in 2007-08, more than one year prior to the EU seal ban, only 1,101 Nunavut seal pelts, bought from hunters by the Government of Nunavut, were sold at auction, generating a grand total of $61,551 in sales. That represents less than the total salary earned by one low-level GN worker.

In 2008-09, Nunavut sales were better: 4,059 pelts, for a total of $155,485.

The seal hunt in Newfoundland, on the other hand, generates about $7 million a year, based on an annual cull of up to 280,000 seals. This year the Department of Fisheries and Oceans raised the total allowable catch on the east coast to 330,000. Norwegian sealers have taken up to 15,000 seals a year, though this number has recently dropped. In Greenland, hunters take up to 90,000 a year. In the Africa nation of Namibia, hunters take up to 90,000.

These countries can claim to possess small-scale sealing industries. But in Nunavut, sealing is not an industry and never has been an industry. Though it’s an important expression of cultural identity, in hard cash, seal hunting contributes virtually nothing to Nunavut’s economy.

In Nunavut, sealing is a small home-based activity, subsidized partly by GN purchases of seal pelts at a guaranteed price, and by other social programs.

The biggest subsidy, however, is that provided by the unpaid labour and capital contributed by hunters. Using equipment they pay for themselves, Nunavut hunters harvest and distribute nutritious food throughout their families and communities for free most of the time.

This is the biggest economic benefit of the Nunavut seal hunt: thousands of kilograms of protein that Nunavut residents would otherwise be forced to buy in local retail stores.

Nunavut, of course, could develop a real sealing industry. The eastern Arctic’s ring seal population is estimated at around five million and could likely sustain higher levels of harvesting than exist now.

But over the past 25 years, territorial governments have failed to create even a semblance of a sealing industry. This is due not only to economic development blundering, but also to an unwillingness by all governments to invest in the infrastructure that Nunavut would need to develop a sealing industry, such as harbours, buildings and equipment.

For example, if you’re a clothing maker and you want to buy seal pelts to make a garment, it’s sometimes impossible to find anyone in Nunavut capable of selling them to you. Crafts people who make such things in Nunavut have been known to buy seal pelts from as far away as Namibia. And, unlike Greenland, a commercial market for seal meat scarcely exists.

A boycott is a legitimate expression of political protest. But boycotts work best when individuals make their own decisions about what to buy and what not to buy. Schell’s coercive motion deprives Nunavut consumers of the ability to do this.

But this comes as no surprise. Schell already demonstrated that he’s no friend of free consumer choice, when this past November, he called Air Canada “a dangerous and unwelcome predator” for the crime of offering lower air fares to Iqaluit residents.

In any event, the sealing issue in Nunavut never was about economics. It’s about cultural identity and the primal insecurities that Inuit feel when they perceive that their identity is threatened.

But empty symbolism, such as the Nunavut’s EU liquor boycott, will not protect cultural identity or assuage these insecurities.

If Schell and other Nunavut MLAs want to do something useful to promote seal hunting, they could start by embracing realism.

And that includes pressing the government to foster a sealing industry that actually creates wealth, jobs and above all, nutritious food. That it took outside agencies to inform Nunavut leaders that many families within the territory suffer from malnutrition is bad enough. That they continue to ignore this reality is even worse. JB

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