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Nunavut 'to keep on going.'

GN promotes fur in face of EU 'sealskin; ban


MONTREAL – Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak says she felt proud when she watched her daughter Karliin and classmates Meeka Kilabuk and Connie Pewatualuk collect awards this week at the Montreal fur show for their original sealskin fashion designs.

But apprehension was mixed with this pride.

That's because, even as the model strutted down the runway wearing grand-prize winner Karliin Aariak's wide-collared jacket, members of the European Parliament were preparing to approve a ban on the importation of nearly all sealskin products into its 27 member nations.

The European Parliament voted May 5 to impose an import ban on seal products, saying commercial seal hunting, notably in Canada, is "inherently inhumane."

Members of the assembly voted 550 to 49 to approve the bill, which EU governments are expected to endorse.

The ban, which will come into effect in 2010, offers an exemption to furs hunted traditionally by Inuit from Canada and Greenland, but bars them from large-scale commerce in skins, oils or meat in EU member nations.

Canada and Norway say they will challenge the ban at the World Trade Organization. Canada has said the ban on the trade in seal products doesn't contain acceptable exemptions for humanely harvested seal products.

Nunavut plans to "to keep on going," in educating the world about the Inuit seal hunt and lobbying to reverse the ban, Aariak said.

On the eve of the vote approving the ban, Aariak and Daniel Shewchuk, Nunavut's environment minister, already seemed resigned to the outcome.

Feedback received from a delegation sent from Iqaluit to the European Parliament's home in Strasbourg, France, as a "last-ditch" effort to turn the vote was discouraging, Shewchuk said.

A last-minute public statement from the Inuit Circumpolar Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami pleaded with the European parliament to not pass the seal ban and invited its members to visit the Arctic and judge sealing for themselves.

But the message didn't have the desired result.

The Government of Nunavut now moves on to its Plan B, which will involve some hard decisions.

Simon Awa, the deputy minister for the environment said the GN will reevaluate its policy of buying sealskins and shipping them for sale at auction in the South. This costs the GN about $400,000 a year, although most of the cost is usually recovered later during auctions.

But during the last auction, none of Nunavut's sealskins sold.

The GN may buy back the unsold sealskins and then sell them at a low price to Nunavummiut because it's better to repatriate the skins than to leave them rotting in the auction warehouse, Awa said.

Overall, the new ban is likely to come as a blow to the Nunavut economy despite an exemption for traditionally-hunted sealskins, Awa said, pointing to the disastrous impact of the first move to limit the seal hunt in the early 1980s.

The seal hunt results in "substantial benefits" to the Nunavut economy, the GN's 2004 sealing strategy states.

This strategy said the industry is worth $800,000 to hunters, artisans and sewers and replacing the food value of the seal meat would cost $5 million.

Despite the ban, Nunavut Arctic College plans to continue a course that offers a two-year diploma program in sealskin design and production.

Meeka Kilabuk, a member of the first graduating class, plans to dive right into producing her own designs, which includes her prize-winning men's jacket as well as Blackberry and cell phone covers, decorated with ulus or other patterns.

But the fur industry is facing tough times.

In the past, North American Fur and Fashion Exposition in Montreal attracted 5,000 buyers who placed up to $100 million worth orders for fur fashions, but this year there appeared to be fewer booths and lighter crowds.

A visit to NAFFEM this year, which now bills itself as a "luxury outerware show," revealed the challenges involved in selling anything made with fur.

The entrance to NAFFEM show was hidden in the bowels of Place Bonaventure, there was no signage, and all visitors had to pass rigorous security.

These measures were presumably intended to foil the plans of any animal rights activists to crash the show or organize a demonstration.

Most of the fur designs in the show were high-end luxury garments, embellished with sparkly sequins, puffy trims or giant appliqués. The fur was generally dyed into wild colours and prints or woven so it didn't look like the original fur – or even like fur at all.

The splashy designs were obviously to be worn by people who have lots of money and don't care about animal rights activists.

Nunavut Arctic College students used a small booth to display their work, while the designs by three student winners of the 2009 "Fur Re-Invented" design competition were featured in a special runway show.

Yet there were few other sealskin products to be found apart from boots produced by a Quebec-based manufacturer called Pajar and items from NAFG Canada, a Newfoundland company with links to Denmark and Greenland, which displayed coats, bags and novelty items like sealskin-covered flasks and thermoses.

Newmil Products showed off sealskins dyed to look like herringbone wool, Burberry print or tiger skins.

No matter how you look at it, the ban on seal products is a "serious problem," admitted Alan Herscovici, the executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada.

The European parliament members should sit down at the table and discuss how to bring the seal hunt up to their standards, if that's the real issue, he suggested.

But Herscovici said the decision to impose the ban appears to be mainly political in nature.

"Seal hunters don't vote in EU elections so there's no political cost," he said.

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