Duplicitous WTO seal ban strategy could leave Canada’s Inuit out in the cold

On the frozen ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a sealer moves in to kill a beater harp seal pup with a hakapik -- a spiked club. Canada allows the controversial hunting of seal pups and 95% of the seals killed are younger than 3 months old. The hunt takes place annually in the spring. The discussion on the European Union’s import ban on seal products continued last week as the second panel hearings of the World Trade Organization were held in Geneva.  The hearings follow a ruling by the European Court of Justice that upheld the now three-year old ban.

The European Union (EU) argues that commercial sealing is inhumane, and imposes pain and suffering on animals that cannot be consistently avoided.

The EU ban seeks to protect public morals of EU citizens, who are opposed to seal products and do not want to create markets for - or unwittingly buy - seal products.

Canada and Norway are challenging the EU ban, claiming it is unjustified.  They say it unfairly discriminates against their commercial sealing industries while protecting smaller-scale seal hunts that take place in the EU and Inuit seal hunts, which they claim are more cruel than commercial hunts.

As a recent opinion piece in the Inuit journal Nunatsiaq News points out, Europeans are opposed to commercial seal hunting, not Inuit sealing. Therefore the EU regulation allows for seal products to be sold if they come from hunts traditionally conducted by indigenous peoples.

The EU’s justification for this exception is that moral concern for the culture, traditions, and economic livelihoods of indigenous peoples outweighs the general concerns for animal welfare.  

Seal hunting is an intrinsic part of the Inuit way of life and an integral part of Inuit culture and survival.

Why then, is Canada arguing against the exemption for Inuit seal products?

Special treatment for indigenous peoples in legislation is nothing new.

Canada itself has exemptions from its own laws for First Nations and Aboriginal Peoples, and numerous European and international conventions give special consideration to indigenous peoples and the importance of their traditional activities.

It is therefore not at all unusual that the EU would provide an exemption for Inuit hunted seal products. 

Should Canada and Norway succeed with their argument and the exemption for Inuit hunted seal products is dropped altogether, then Inuit seal products too will be prohibited for sale in the EU, with perhaps broader implications for the rights of indigenous peoples in future trade negotiations.

The complainants’ strategy seems to be to make the World Trade Organization (WTO) panel forget that Inuit exist at all in Canada with Norway attempting to portray Greenland as the only country with Inuit sealers benefitting from the exemption.

While it may be convenient for Canada to speak from both sides by claiming to “stand up” for Inuit tradition and culture when speaking about the seal hunt at home and pretending they don’t exist when before the WTO, it is unclear how this strategy might possibly benefit Canadian Inuit.

For example the government of Greenland has already taken the necessary steps to ensure their Inuit hunted seal products can be sold in the EU.

Canada has done nothing.

The report of the WTO panel is expected later this October, and it seems as though whatever the ruling, there will be an appeal.

Meanwhile, Canada’s East Coast commercial seal hunt continues to plod along, as fishermen report killing some 89,000 seals. Whether markets can be found for their skins or not remains unclear.

What is clear, from the footage of the 2013 seal hunt shown in Geneva, is that seals continue to be gaffed while alive and conscious, and shot and left to suffer for unnecessarily long periods in the course of Canada’s commercial seal hunt.

The International Fund for animal Welfare will continue to fight against this cruel and unnecessary industry, and work with Canadian politicians to support alternatives for sealing communities.


For more information about our efforts to bring the Canadian commercial seal hunt to an end, visit our campaign page.

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