Environmental refugees

Protestors against the seal hunt, attracting widespread media attention, successfully swayed public opinion and put pressure on governments to ban the hunt. The price of sealskins fell. The market was destroyed. European embargoes that resulted have had devestating effects on Inuit communities. The 'seal protest' was fueled by images of cruelty of the hunting methods, particularly to photogenic seal pups.

Paul Watson a 1985 personal communication and others argue that "... perception is reality and that sealing by Inuit, or other groups is caught in '... an era of changing values'.

Animal rights groups, whose intentions to prevent cruelty to animals and to protect species against extinction may at best be laudable, have acted with alarming insensitivity to the cultural, social and economic position of aboriginal peoples. Inuit communities have become the real victims of this conflict. (Wenzel: 78)

In the narrowest sense, such images can be interpreted as romanticized visions of a lost past. Inuit communities by the 1950s differed greatly from those of the 1930s. Animal rights activists would argue that the Inuit by entering the fur trade became agents of capitalism. Within one generation there was a complete rupture with thousands of years of traditions.

While seal protestors recognise that the Inuit were involuntary drawn as participants in the early years of the fur trade, they feel that now they "no longer care about the wildlife they hunt because the root cause of contemporary hunting is the acquisition of money." (Wenzel 1985:84) The cash economy and its exotic southern products has led the Inuit to replace their traditional values and perspectives in its pursuit.

Inuit are criticized for using mechanized technology in hunting. A representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare stated that if Inuit hunted the way they did five hundred years ago there would be no problem. (Wenzel 1985:84) The argument is that technological innovations, such as rifles and snowmobiles, remove the activity from any traditional orientation and sever it with the past. ;

"Of course, from the outside, change is often considered a sign of assimilation and loss of authenticity. No issue is more bitterly contested within the native art community. Here is has found an ally in postmodern theory, which has engaged in deconstructing the image of the unchanging other as a fictional construct of European identity formation. (Nemiroff 1992:38) The classic example is Edward Said's critique of Orientalism's construction of static images instead of historical or personal narratives. (Said, E. 1978)

Animal rights activists used the harsh imagery of the clubbing and skinning of the white coat seal, the cub of the harp seal as motivational material against the seal hunt. The original argument was centred around issues of the cruelty of the hunting methods used in the March hunt of the harp and hood seal in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence;The central issue shifted over the years with fear of extinction becoming a key factor. Finally the use of seals in any way besides as objects of "curious affection" became abhorrent for many antifur groups. In the 1980s as the seal protest shifted the focus of their concerns from cruelty to animals to moral issues of the extinction of species and exploitation of wildlife, it became apparent that biological investigations, the gathering of data on populations would not resolve the matter. (Wenzel 19)

"Perhaps the most difficult blow has been the realization that ringed seals, for Inuit, have in fact, an economic, as well as a cultural meaning. For the [seal protest] movement, this in itself is a contradiction; ." (Wenzel 1985: 88)

While the Inuit have a long and unquestionable history of respect for the Arctic environment and for the animals on whom they depend, animal rights activists claim that the lifestyle and hunting methods of the Inuit have changed. Some claim the Inuit are like all other hunters and should be treated the same. Anything less would be racism.

The animal rights groups argue from a paternalistic viewpoint that the Inuit way of life is of the past, not the prestent. Inuit ways of knowing, Inuit values in Inuit society are no longer given credence.

The Inuit remained silent on the political issue of the sealhunt until the Royal Commission on Seals and the Seal Industry in 1983. They remained out of the discussions preferring to let kabloona argue among themselves. By the time they did present their testimonies to the Commission it was too late. The European Parliament extended the ban on all seal products and the market for seal was devastated.

In 1982 the European Economic Community banned many sealskin products. Their question was now: Is the exploitation of seals "... a natural and legitimate occupation?" Does it form "... an important part of the traditional way of life and economy..."

The relationship between the Inuit and the southern, animal rights activists became increasingly contradictory. The Inuit became the 'Enemy'. However, the media relations were very careful to not include the Inuit in their arguments against the hunt.

According to Wenzel, there is a "... contradictory relationship between Inuit and a southern, liberal environmental and "rights"-oriented movement." The latter use a number of arguments for including the Inuit with the 'enemy': change, complicity and sameness ... Rights groups accuse Inuit of complicity with government and industry, the enemy, because there were Inuit representatives in the delegation sent to influence European opinion.


Maureen Flynn-Burhoe 2000. Last updated web design (not content) February 2002.
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