11 min read

World Trade Organization Again Rules Against Commercial Seal Hunt

Canadian ignorance fuels Canadian ignorance

In late May, it was announced that the World Trade Organization (WTO) had ruled in favour of the European Union's ban on products derived from Canada's northwest Atlantic commercial hunt of harp seals. Canada and Norway had appealed the ban. Just before the decision was made public, an organization called the "Trade Fairness Coalition" released a poll that suggested a majority of Europeans are opposed to the ban on seal products based on "public morality," unless there is clear scientific evidence to support the ban.

This is where it gets, well, tacky, if not outright pathetic... a case of people willfully fooling themselves and being annoyed that others don't go along with the nonsense. The grandly named "Trade Fairness Coalition" is an invention of such organizations as the Fur Council of Canada, the Fur Institute of Canada, Canada Mink Breeders, Canada Safari Club International Foundation, and various other organizations that don't want "public morality" to influence policy. The "poll" was conducted by "Valued Opinions" which "surveys" people by invitation only, paying them for their opinions. That's not exactly in keeping with the best traditions of randomly sampling carefully designated demographics selected to create models from which extrapolations can be made that will represent the population's overall views with an identifiable degree of certainty.

But hey, if you want to fool yourself, choosing who you ask is the way to go. It's just that European politicians, or the rest of us, are not obliged to go along with the myths.

Part of the myth Canada works so hard to create is that the "traditional" seal hunt for "sustenance," conducted by the Inuit in the far north, is indivisible from and part of the large-scale commercial hunt that occurs early each spring in the Northwest Atlantic (Newfoundland and Labrador – "the front") and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: two places harp (and hooded) seals congregate to give birth on floating sea ice each year. Thus, the ban is somehow against products from both hunts, although it is not-and never has been-about the "sustenance" hunt.

The "sustenance" hunt involves a relatively small number of mostly ringed seals: a very different species from the harp. Ringed seals are the smallest seal species, and they are dependent on sea ice for their survival. But, they are also thought to be critical to the survival of another ice-dependent species: the polar bear. The northern "sustenance" hunt can also opportunistically include harp, bearded, and hooded seals.

The arctic-based Nunatsiaq News, published in Iqaluit, Nunavut, pointed out that, according to another survey, 57 percent of Europeans believe that the WTO decision could have a negative impact on trade of other animal or natural products. They seem to assume that means support for the east coast commercial seal hunt. And yet, I would agree with that opinion, and I oppose the commercial east coast hunt. I think morality is important, and if it leads to limiting trade of animal products derived from any other cruel practices, I see that as a positive development. I think most Europeans would, as well.

The Telegram, published in St. John's, Newfoundland, quoted the National Post's John Ivison as ironically saying that facts don't matter to those of us opposed to the east coast commercial hunt. "They have been replaced by popular delusion and the madness of crowds."

I'm the last one to suggest that any trade policy will either satisfy all parties or display a consistency of intent, and it was pointed out in the WTO's decision that the EU erred by allowing trade from the Inuit hunt in Greenland even though it is as "commercial" as the east coast one. The whole idea of exempting "native," "aboriginal," or "first nations" from restrictions that apply to "hunting" by folks of a paler hue of skin, or whose ancestors arrived on the scene a shorter time ago (say hundreds, as opposed to thousands, of years), seems inherently biased to me-like caring if someone's ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, or by way of Ellis Island in the 1940s.

But, while the decision by the EU (supported by the WTO) is called "hypocritical" by commercial seal hunt apologists because there are not similar bans against animal products or practices that also involve cruelty to animals, it can also be seen for what it really is: a more progressive and aggressive approach to animal welfare than is to be found in Canada. While it may be comforting to pro-sealing factions to think that animal abuse in agriculture and the subsequent production of vast amounts of meat, leather, and dairy products are ignored by the humane movement, in fact, those abuses are being aggressively challenged worldwide, to varying degrees, and intently in western Europe (compared to Canada). Canadians may not be aware of it, but the Europeans are making significant strides in outlawing the cruelest animal agriculture and other practices. There are similar and profound challenges to animal abuses sanctioned by "tradition," such as the production of foie gras, fox hunting, hare hunting, bullfighting, cosmetic and product testing research, trapping, and use of bird lime.

I understand that what The Telegram called "some nonsense about protecting ‘public morals'" is not as important to whomever wrote that as it is to others, but in this case, the "others" happen to be members of the EU: a collective unit representing millions of voters. They are ahead of Canada on humanitarian issues, just as they are on the issue of global climate change-something that is a far greater threat to the Canadian Inuit "sustenance" seal hunt than the WTO's decision could ever be. The ringed seal, most commonly killed by Inuit for food, pelts, and other products, is already a threatened species. And, just as Canada does not want to demonstrate anything remotely like leadership on anything to do with the humane treatment of animals, it is even more regressive with regard to environmental issues generally, and global climate change in particular. A year and a half ago, Canada was ranked 58th out of 61 countries in terms of its policies and action on climate change.

If you can really look at the commercial seal hunt and find it an acceptable way to treat animals, fine; but most of us simply can't do that.