Sealskin artist says Etsy sales policy discriminates against Indigenous artisans

Online shop takes down Ottawa jeweller’s sealskin creations

Vanessa Brousseau’s Etsy shop Resilient Inuk’s Creations features earrings and other jewellery made of sealskin and beads. The online marketplace says it prohibits the sale of endangered wildlife. (Image courtesy of Resilient Inuk/Instagram)

By Sarah Rogers

Vanessa Brousseau, an Ottawa-based hobby artisan, sells her sealskin and beadwork jewellery through an Etsy page called Resilient Inuk’s Creations. (Photo courtesy of V. Brousseau)

An Inuk jeweller is calling for changes to the policies of a popular online marketplace, saying they discriminate against Indigenous people.

Vanessa Brousseau, an Ottawa-based public servant and hobby artisan, sells her sealskin and beadwork pieces through an Etsy page called Resilient Inuk’s Creations.

Drawing on her mixed Inuk and Ojibwa heritage, Brousseau blends sealskin with beadwork to create colourful earrings and bracelets.

She’s been posting her work to social media for a few years.

“People liked it,” she said. “So I started making it for others.”

As demand for her work has continued to grow, Brousseau set up a sales page on Etsy, an online marketplace of artisans from around the world.

Earlier this month, Brousseau started getting messages from site administration saying her sealskin creations violate the company’s policy on wildlife products.

“This policy applies to all species and subspecies of endangered or threatened animals,” reads Etsy’s policy.

“We may remove animal products at our discretion based on an item’s presentation or if we receive notice that it may be in violation of the law.”

Etsy bases its policy on the U.S. Endangered Species Act — which lists certain subspecies of ringed seals as either threatened or endangered — as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Arctic ringed seal falls under the threatened category, according to U.S. law. Canadian law does not list any populations of ringed seal as threatened or endangered.

Brousseau said she has explained to the company that she’s an Indigenous artist who works with sealskin that’s ethically and legally harvested by Inuit, so her works should be exempt from the policy.

“Every day, I get an email and then [Etsy] removes two or three items,” she said.

“And then I ask for a refund because I don’t want to pay for those services. And they’ve been threatening to suspend the shop.”

Brousseau pays a five per cent transaction fee for every sale and 25 cents up front per listing.

Etsy did not respond to Nunatsiaq News’ request for comment.

While Brousseau started off working with collected scraps of sealskin she received from elders, she now purchases treated skins she buys through Gaston Henry Furs, a Quebec-based company that buys from harvesters in Nunavik.

“It’s important to me to know where my sealskin comes from,” said Brousseau.

Brousseau’s conflict with Etsy isn’t unique. Inuit harvesters and artists have encountered problems selling animal products through other social media platforms before. In 2018, some Nunavummiut artisans complained to Facebook for removing posts of their sealskin crafts on a sell-and swap page.

Facebook has a policy similar to Etsy’s prohibiting the sale of endangered wildlife. In 2019, Facebook acknowledged that Indigenous people “have unique needs when pursuing their traditional livelihoods across our platforms” and pledged to update the site’s commerce policies.

Brousseau said she’ll likely close her Etsy shop and build her own sales website.

But she said it was important for her to ensure companies like Etsy understand what harvesting means in Indigenous communities.

“It’s not just about me, it’s about all other Inuit who make things and are trying to make a life for themselves,” Brousseau said.

“Especially Inuit women. It’s affecting us.”

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Make Your Own Portal Is The Answer on

    Private American company – they set the rules based on American laws.

    You have no right to use their services, it is a privilege.

    You don’t like it, create your own online sales portal like this woman is doing. Don’t expect the foreigners to understand, or even really be interested in your concerns.

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  2. Posted by The Old Trapper on

    It’s a difficult call for a business such as Etsy, who don’t have the expertise to make an educated decision. They will rely on the U.S. Endangered Species Act, or the U.N. CITES information without looking into the situation in depth.
    .
    Because of previous exploitation a company such as Etsy would rather err on the side of political correctness than fact., and I can see why that is the case.
    .
    Japan for example kills whales for “research” but the whales always seem to end up in the local markets. Many people just see this as a loophole the Japanese are exploiting to continue their whale harvest for commercial reasons.
    .
    Is this any different than the bowhead harvests each year throughout Nunavut and Nunavik? Yes, but does Etsy know that or will they spend the time to find out? Probably not.
    .
    There are also a number of African countries that continue lion, elephant, and other “big game” safari, stating that they only take the old or infirm, and that funds from the safari finance conservation efforts. Again a tough decision and not one that I would be able to make without a lot more information.
    .
    What is really needed is for the Canadian government to make the case before the U.N. that harvesting by indigenous people is well regulated and needs to be exempt. Get this written into the U.S. and U.N. regulations so someone like Ms. Brousseau can point to it when this comes up, as it always does.

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    • Posted by Pork Pie on

      I am supportive of Brousseau in this, but there are difficulties with your solution. Americans really don’t care what the UN thinks and the idea that “getting it into US regulations” is a casual undertaking; easy or even plausible, especially under the current administration, is a little on the too simple side Old Trapper.

  3. Posted by Their laws not yours on

    Etsy is an American company that abides by US law. Canadian laws don’t apply in the good ol USA. Don’t like it? Use a different platform. Seems to me like she’s making stink over nothing.

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  4. Posted by noitisnt on

    It’s not discriminations against the artisan. Stop trying to make every thing about race.

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    • Posted by Kabuki Theater on

      To say someone or some entity “discriminates against Indigenous artisans” is a code meant to invoke a moral and emotional response best understood within a framework were Indigenous people are always viewed as victims in a larger morality play.

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  5. Posted by Leslie on

    Her beaded creations are beautiful. It would be a shame for her to shut down her business all together. Perhaps going forward she could expand and focus on the beaded items without using the seal skins?

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    • Posted by Perfectly Reasonable on

      Buying and selling seal skins is breaking US law, so you can understand why Etsy just puts a blanket ban on the buying and selling of products that are illegal under US law.

      Annoying no doubt, but perfectly reasonable and in no way discriminatory as long as they apply the ‘no illegal products’ ban to all.

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  6. Posted by JB on

    Sounds like she didn’t do enough business planning with respect to her proposed market platform. I’m willing to bet that she had no concept of what CITES is prior to going into business.
    .
    Want to play ball on a multinational platform? You need to get multi-nationally smartened!
    .
    Zero sympathy for people pulling the false discrimination alarm.

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