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EU seal skin ban angers Nunavummiut

Lauren McKeon
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, Aug. 1, 2009

NUNAVUT - The European Union's recent ratification of its seal products ban legislation has been met with anger, sadness and disappointment by Nunavummiut across the territory.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Mary Kilaodluk of Cambridge Bay works on a skin used in a recent kayak-making project in the community. - photo courtesy of Caitlin Charbonneau

While the legislation, which was ratified on July 27, does contain an exemption for Inuit many say it is useless and shows a lack of consideration for Nunavut.

"The EU claims that Inuit interests are protected through the provision of an Inuit exemption but these claims demonstrate that the EU has not considered Nunavut's Inuit statements on the exemption: that it will not protect their communities," said Fe Wyma, assistant manager of policy and programming for the GN's Fisheries and Sealing Division.

"They (the EU) refuse to listen to us. To us an extension is useless because the price of the skin has already dropped and we can't sell any seals anyway," added

Aaju Peter, an Iqaluit-based sealskin fashion designer. Both women liken the current exemption, which is extended to Inuit in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia, to a similar one during a European ban on seal products in the 1980s.

"That exemption did not work, as the commercial sealskin markets disappeared and our small communities suffered immensely. We know from experience that these anti-sealing campaigns result in stigma associated with all seal products, regardless of the origin or hunting method used," said Wyma.

Daniel Shewchuk, Nunavut's Minister of Environment, said the current exemption is unclear and lacks detailed information but agreed any exemption is detrimental.

"We need all of the Canadian market to have a strong market in the seal industry to make our seals of economic value to us. We need to stand together. A little market of Inuit seal products is not going to be looked at on the world stage as a very healthy strong market," he said. The ban has also been slammed by many groups and government officials across Canada.

Mary Simon, the national Inuit leader in Canada and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, called the seal ban an "abomination" and Stockwell Day, the federal Minister of International Trade, said he would continue to defend the rights of Canadian sealers.

The Government of Canada has also announced it will pursue World Trade Organization (WTO) consultations on the seal products ban, which could lead to the opportunity to build a case before the WTO dispute settlement panel. In the meantime, the GN and Inuit in Nunavut are working to combat effects of the ban in the territory.

Currently, the GN is embarking on a campaign to strengthen domestic markets and is looking at alternate international markets, such as Russia and China, said Wyma.

The GN is also working to boost popularity of its dressed sealskins program, which aims to make sealskins more affordable and accessible to Nunavummiut by offering sealskins to Nunavut producers who use skins to make clothes, accessories and crafts at a subsidized rate. The skins are bought back from the GN's fur selling agent in North Bay, Ont., Fur Harvesters Auction Inc.; and the GN covers the cost of shipping.

Use of the program is expected to triple this year, bringing 3,000 skins to Nunavut's artists and seamstresses, said Wyma.

But Peter said she would also like to see the GN take a more active role in lobbying the EU and suggested it would be beneficial to hire somebody to do so.

"We really have to put a face to this whole sealing issue," said Peter, who travelled to Stratford, England along with other Inuit to meet with EU parliamentarians.

"I don't think that southerners and I don't think that Europeans realize how harmful (the ban) has been and how harmful it is to our communities and to the families the depend on the seal (trade)," she said. "It's a very serious issue."

The GN will continue to purchase sealskins from harvesters in the communities, which should provide some protection against current market effects, said Wyma.