bc-090505-olympic-team-torino

Canadian athletes wore the Maple Leaf on their uniforms during the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. ((Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press) )

The House of Commons may have voted to use the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver to protest an international ban on seal products, but Canada's Olympic team is refusing to take up the fight, saying politics have no place at the Games.

MPs from all parties unanimously agreed to a Bloc Québécois motion Wednesday that the international sporting event in Vancouver next February should be used to promote products from the annual seal hunt on the East Coast, including the possibility that Canada's Olympic uniform include at least one seal product, likely skin.

Fisheries Minister Gail Shea applauded the idea, but wondered whether it might be too late.

"I think it's a good symbolic suggestion — to add something to the outfit of our athletes. I think it would be a good statement for the Canadian sealing industry, and Canada's support of it," said Shea.

Olympic officials say 'No' to politics

But the head of the Canadian Olympic Committee immediately shot down the idea that sealskin, or any political statement, might be incorporated into the Olympic uniform.

"No, we would not be doing that," said Chris Rudge, adding that over the coming year he expects to field a variety of requests similar to the one made Wednesday, and his answer won't change.

"These are social and economic issues that our government will deal with," said Rudge. "I think it would be inappropriate to use the athletes as a voice for issues that accrue to other elements to our society."

The 2004 Games in Athens were marked by protests over the killing of stray dogs, and the Beijing Games in 2008 became embroiled in international debate over Tibet and alleged human rights abuses, Rudge noted.

"People are concerned about these [issues], and they're important things to be concerned about. I'm certainly not diminishing them. But we couldn't begin to speak out about them, even if it was appropriate. There are many things in society that are worthy of social engagement."

Rudge also said it is in fact too late to include sealskin in the uniforms; the 500 outfits for athletes and staff have already been approved by the International Olympic Committee and are in production.

Officials at the Vancouver Organizing Committee declined to comment on the sealskin uniform proposal, saying that uniforms are the responsibility of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Non-binding motion

Motions in Parliament, like the Olympic uniform motion, are non-binding on either the government or the Canadian Olympic Committee, but their symbolic value is often important to MPs looking to demonstrate a strong position on an issue.

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said the Canadian government was outmanoeuvred on the public-relations front in Europe and that it should have been more aggressive defending the seal hunt.

"The Olympics aren't a trivial thing. We could use this event to shed light on this, but we need to use other events, too," he said.

Duceppe shot back at one questioner who asked whether Olympic athletes might bristle at the idea of being forced to wear animal pelts to make a political statement.

"I don't know what my shoes are made of but if they're not made out of plastic, they're not made out of straw, they come from an animal."

Duceppe singled out one country that he felt had no business lecturing Canada on animal rights: Spain, where provoking bulls and then fatally stabbing the animals in front of cheering crowds is considered a national sport.

"I find it completely abnormal to see protests [against the seal hunt] in Spain — the country that holds the bullfights," Duceppe said.

"We need a campaign. Our adversaries conducted one heck of a campaign, and Canada did not conduct a major one on the promotional level," said Duceppe.