'It provides us with our identity.'

Nunavut's day of the seal


The crowd roared as Johnny Issaluk jumped along the runway on his knuckles and toes in a display of traditional Inuit knuckle-hopping, an imitation of how a seal slithers across the ice.

Issaluk's demonstration of Arctic sports prowess was just one way in which last weekend's Celebration of the Seal event in Iqaluit told the story of the seal's central role within Inuit culture: food, and an inspiration for song, dance and fashion.

More than 400 Nunavut residents came to Iqaluit's arena March 15 to honour the seal, wearing everything from traditional sealskin amautis and kamiks to stylish sealskin hats.

They feasted on fresh seal meat, listened as tots sang songs about seals and applauded fashion shows featuring sealskin creations.

Many wore stickers on their parkas saying "Eat seal, wear seal."

Sheila Watt-Cloutier, 2007 Nobel peace prize nominee and climate change activist, attended the celebration. She said the seal hunt is "nutritionally, economically, and spiritually" essential to Inuit.

At the same time, in St. John's, Nfld., sealers in sealskin caps handed out samples of seal oil capsules and ate seal flipper pie at Newfoundland's annual Swiler's (or Sealer's) Ball.

Both events were held in defiance of a world-wide "day of protest," also held March 15,organized by anti-sealing animal rights groups.

In Montreal, half-naked activists shivered in their underwear to protest the skinning of seals for fur.

In the 1980s, the anti-sealing lobby pressured European nations to ban the import of baby seal pelts.

More recently, the anti-sealing movement has mounted a new campaign encouraging European nations to ban imports of all seal products.

Ironically, animal rights activists don't even know what sealskins look like, says Iqaluit law graduate and sealskin designer Aaju Peter.

Peter, who coordinated last weekend's seal festivities in Iqaluit, travelled to Europe last March to speak out against the ban on seal products.

Since then, Belgium and the Netherlands have banned imports of seal products, and a European Union-wide ban on sealskin imports may be in place by June.

This ban will exempt Inuit traditionally-hunted furs from a subsistence hunt. But Peter says this could hurt Inuit anyway.

That's because no one knows how the Europeans will define "traditional hunting." For example, the definition may prohibit the use of guns or snowmobiles, which are both used in "traditional" Inuit hunts.

An inirvik-shaped tag, shaped like a sealskin stretcher, already identifies Nunavut seal products in English and Inuktitut as coming from "Nature's Edge."

However, customs officials usually don't recognize these labels, and the paperwork needed to allow "traditionally-hunted" seal products into countries with bans may take months to process.

The Government of Nunavut, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Fur Council of Canada say the best way to counter attacks on the seal hunt is for Inuit sealers to maintain solidarity with Maritime sealers, who will take 275,000 seals this spring.

"We need to work together as sealers and harvesters in a global effort against animal rights groups," said NTI's assistant director of wildlife, Paul Irngaut, at a March 11 sealing information workshop in Iqaluit, which was put on by the GN and the Fur Council of Canada.

Global economic forces also affect the sealskin market within Nunavut, and today's hunters carry a heavy load of red tape, said Joshua Kanguk of Iqaluit's Amarok hunters and trappers association.

"It seems as if we are being overwhelmed by the outside world," he said at the March 11 workshop.

Pangnirtung elder Peterloosie Qappik said he clearly recalls a time when Inuit hunters piled their kamotiks high with sealskins, took them to the Hudson Bay Co. and exchanged the furs for money.

These days, it's not as simple. After demand for sealskins nosedived in the 1980s, the HBC and co-ops stopped buying them from hunters.

Now, hunters must go through a territorial wildlife officer to sell their sealskins, their furs must be of high quality, and they don't get paid the full amount until their sealskins have gone through auction.

Under this program, the GN buys about 10,000 skins a year.

Even learning how to work with sealskins isn't as easy as it was in the days when mothers passed this knowledge onto their daughters.

Many elders are expert sewers, but often their daughters didn't learn when they were at residential schools. The result: many young Inuit women haven't mastered these skills.

That's Nunavut Arctic College now offers a pilot course on fur production.

They spent the first half of the course learning to clean and soften sealskin and make traditional Inuit clothing. Now they are learning about industrial sewing techniques and fashion design.

Hunters at the sealing workshop were puzzled over the need to formally teach skills that many of their mothers still practice.

But they welcomed the twisted seal ribbons that the Arctic College students gave them as gifts.

Many at the seal celebration wore the ribbons, which come pinned to a card that says "the seal provides us with more than just food and clothes. It provides us with our identity. Today the seal continues to be an integral part of our culture and economy."

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