Animal rights activists and Inuit clash over Canada’s Indigenous food traditions

Seal meat on a Toronto restaurants menu has stirred up a decades-long conflict over anti-hunting campaigns, which the Inuit say threaten their existence

A newly opened restaurant in Toronto sparked heated online debate recently by revealing that two dishes on its menu would contain seal meat. K-km Kitchen, an Indigenous-owned and operated restaurant, was targeted by an online petition which gained more than 6,300 signatures. The petition called for the restaurant to remove seal from its menu, stating that seal hunting is violent, horrific, traumatizing and unnecessary.

The controversy again highlighted the often uncomfortable relationship between animal rights and environmental groups and Indigenous communities who are struggling with profound issues of poverty and deprivation.

The work of such activist organisations is crucial in educating the general public through events such as todays World Vegan Day, and in encouraging government policies that promote a more sustainable future for the planet. But with change comes responsibility, something that Greenpeace recognised in 2014 when it openly apologised to the Inuit people of North America and Greenland for its role in causing them 40 years of grief, hardship and frustration.

This period has been dubbed The Great Depression by the Inuit, referring to the seal hunting ban in Europe and, more significantly, the associated drop in public approval of seal products.

While Greenpeace has now halted its anti-sealing campaigns, organisations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are still running campaigns that Inuit communities say threaten their very existence.

In Toronto, the protest against K-km Kitchens seal-based dishes prompted a counter-petition by local artist Aylan Couchie, who claims the original petition was ill-informed and that seal products hold historical and cultural significance for Indigenous communities. Couchie contends that targeting a small Indigenous business when hundreds of other restaurants in Toronto use meat from inhumane sources is anti-Indigenous.

The crux of this latest controversy, however, is the meats source: SeaDNA, which provides the restaurant with its seal meat, is a company that takes part in the commercial seal hunt every year in Canada.

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A vessel loaded with seal pelts during the 2009 commercial seal hunt in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada. Photograph: Stewart Cook/Ifaw/EPA

According to Joseph Shawana, head chef and owner of K-Km Kitchen: We did our due diligence when sourcing our meat. All hunters [at SeaDNA] go through rigorous training to ensure they hunt the seals as humanely as possible. And they only harvest what they need that is something intrinsic in our Indigenous culture. Only take what you need, not what you want.

Shawana says he is happy to discuss the issue with the protesters, telling them: Come visit me at the restaurant: Id love to answer any questions. In his view, the controversy stems from misinformation. The Inuit have never harvested white seal pups that is very frowned upon. Also, Canada has a huge, federally regulated seal industry. The seal hunt is not what it was like before, when the seal population was less than a million now its over seven million.

The commercial seal hunt has been a contentious subject between animal rights activists and Indigenous groups for decades. In the 1970s, Ifaw began to mobilise public opinion against the annual hunt of baby harp seals (known as whitecoats) off Canadas east coast. The organisations used photographs of helpless baby seals being clubbed to death by fishermen to create protest campaigns.

After immense public support, in 1983 the European Economic Community (ECC) banned the importing of seal skin and furs for two years. Public opinion against the seal hunt was so strong that demand for seal pelts and furs dropped dramatically all over the world.

As animal rights organisations celebrated the collapse of Canadas east-coast whitecoat sealing industry, the Inuit in northern Canada who do not hunt seal pups, only adult harp seals suffered from the collapse of the market for seal pelts. Despite a written exemption for Indigenous Inuit hunters, markets across the Arctic (both large-scale commercial and sustainable-use) crashed.

In 1983-85, when the ban went into effect, the average income of an Inuit seal hunter in Resolute Bay fell from Can$54,000 to $1,000. The government of the Northwest Territories estimated that nearly 18 out of 20 Inuit villages lost almost 60% of their communities income.

And life in these areas has not got any better since. The region is plagued with the highest unemployment rate in Canada, and the highest suicide rates in the world. A second seal ban, enforced by the European Union in 2010, only exacerbated these issues.

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A harp seal pup or whitecoat on an ice floe. Photograph: Stewart Cook/Ifaw/EPA

Irena Knezevic, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa specialising in communication around food and health, believes that historically, campaigns by organisations such as Peta and Ifaw have gravely impacted Inuit communities:

I want to be really cautious by first saying this is not true of all vegan and environmental organisations, she says. But I do think organisations like Peta, Ifaw and Sea Shepherd have greatly profited from the shocking and spectacular images of seals being clubbed to death.

According to Knezevic: It is disingenuous to say the commercial hunt does not affect or impact the Indigenous hunt. It does, and if you look at it, less than 100,000 seals are killed in Canada each year while at the same time, two million minks are farmed and killed in Canada every year: 20 times as many, but we dont see much promotional material with minks by these organisations.

Ashley Byrne, campaign specialist at Peta, says the organisations stance has always been against the commercial seal hunt, not that of the Inuit:

We have always been very clear about the fact that our campaign is focused entirely on ending the commercial field slaughter only. [This] accounts for about 97% of seals killed in Canada, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Inuit subsistence hunt. The Canadian government has to hide behind the Inuit people in a dishonest attempt to justify the commercial slaughter, but theres two different things and our campaign is against the commercial hunt, says Byrne.

When asked what Petas response is to the Inuit community impacted by the campaigns, Byrne suggests public support for cruel products will fall and that alternatives should be explored by the Inuit and the Canadian government.

We have seen a lot of products fall out of favour as a result [of our campaigns], and you know that is progress. It wouldnt be right to drag this ethical progression back. With many of these other products that fall out favour, weve always advocated for job retraining, for people to be able to use their skills in industries that arent dying; [industries] that arent being propped up by tax dollar [subsidies].

According to the Inuit, however, moving into another industry is not only impossible, but offensive: for them, seal hunting holds great cultural significance.

Inuit vs activists: a decades-old conflict

Angry Inuk, a documentary made by filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, depicts the decades-old conflict between animal rights and environmental groups and the Inuit. Aaju Peter, an Inuit lawyer from Nunavut, is one of the activists featured in the documentary; she witnessed first-hand the devastation the seal bans caused her people.

We are trying to feed our communities. When our hunters catch seal they share it it is the most nutritious food our children and communities can eat. But because the hunter can no longer afford fuel and ammunition due to the collapse of the seal market, its really making it hard, Peter says. We are the most food insecure region in any developed country. Something needs to change.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> An Inuit fisherman and his family have a seal meat barbeque. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

A report by the Conference Board of Canada found that Nunavut, a territory in northern Canada, was the countrys most food insecure region, with more than half of the Inuit population reporting moderate-to-severe food insecurity. According to the nonprofit organisation Feeding Nunavut, seven in every 10 preschoolers in the area live in food-insecure households, often going to sleep hungry and missing out on essential nutrition.

Although the Canadian government has tried to strengthen the sealing industry by giving tax subsidies to fishermen and enforcing strict quotas on the number of seals allowed to be <a draggable=”true” href=”http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/fm-gp/seal-phoque/index-eng.htm” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>harvested in a season, vegan and animal rights organisations are not backing down on their fight against the seal hunt.

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer from northern Canada. In 2014, she received death threats from animal rights activists after she posted a picture of her infant daughter next to a dead seal for the Sealfie campaign. The same year, after she received the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, she shouted Fuck Peta during her acceptance speech in a show of support for the seal hunt. Peta responded with a statement saying she was ill-informed and should read more.

I was born and raised [in Nunavut] and I know how the system works, how people harvest meat and how they process it, Tagaq says. The world is burning up for a reason, because people have totally forgotten how to respect the earth, the land, ourselves and each other. The idea some people cant comprehend is that we [Inuit] might have the key to how to respect animals and how to respect the land. Were all on the same side here.

Tagaq says she feels compassion for animal rights activists, because most of them are not aware about the truth behind the seal hunt and other Indigenous practices. They need to know we have the right to live off of our natural resources, without someone telling us what we are allowed to sell. Seals are our cows, they are our beef and leather, yet cattle markets havent crashed due to public opinion and animal rights opposition.

She adds: We have the right to hunt. We have the right to use renewable resources to feed our families. We have the right to survive.

As for K-Km Kitchen, its owner Shawana has no plans to change his restaurants menu: I am paying homage to our northern brothers and sisters, he says. I will continue to sell seal meat.

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