The PR Problems of Canada's 'Other' Seal Hunt ; the Inuit, Who Depend on Seals for Food, Seek a Market for the Skins

Article excerpt

Ever since the first contact with "the West," going back to early European explorers like Martin Frobisher in the 1570s, the question for the Inuit has been, "What can we sell to the world?"

As dependent on imports as ever, the people of the new Canadian territory of Nunavut, in the eastern Arctic, are asking the same question today. But one of the potentially most promising answers - expanding the sealskin trade - is entangled in the international politics of hunting.

The Inuit efforts to expand this sector are being tracked by international experts as a test case of indigenous economic development. As a recent Worldwatch Institute magazine report noted, the Inuit "now have what may be a unique opportunity: a chance to create a self-sustaining economy in a region relatively insulated from the intense population and resource pressures that jeopardize indigenous cultures in so many other parts of the world."

But closer to home, the Nunavut sealing strategy is about survival.

In an interview in his office at the Legislative Assembly here, Peter Kilabuk, territorial minister for sustainable development, scribbles out a simple bar chart to demonstrate how Nunavut could nearly triple its volume in sealskins traded - without one more bullet being fired. But Mr. Kilabuk acknowledges that the people of Nunavut face a public relations struggle. The hunters "have been somewhat misunderstood in their efforts to maintain traditional lifestyles. The southern public has not been educated well enough to support this."

The goal in Nunavut is to build consumer demand for the furs in order to push up prices, which will in turn make it economic to prepare for sale skins of animals already being hunted for food.

To this end, an eight-piece "Nunavut collection" of sealskin garments will be on display this Thursday at the North American Fur & Fashion Exposition (NAFFEM) in Montreal.

CALL it Canada's other seal hunt. The annual springtime clubbing of photogenic white harp seal pups off the coast of Newfoundland has been the focus of a perennial media campaign by international environmental organizations. Europeans, who once craved Canada's furs enough to justify perilous trading voyages by Frobisher and others, have in intervening centuries discovered central heating. They have largely turned their backs on sealskin. In the United States, imports of seal products have been illegal since the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972.

All this leaves the people of Nunavut immensely frustrated.

"So many people misunderstand the way that our hunt up here is different from the one in Newfoundland," says Monica Ell, owner of Arctic Creations, a cottage enterprise that produces sealskin coats, mitts, and other garments. …