Canada is taking its fight against a European ban on seal products to a new level, the government said Friday.
Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said in Ottawa that the government is following through with its promise to take formal action at the World Trade Organization over the European Union's ban on seal products.
Shea told reporters that the government has run out of patience with EU officials, who she said have sided with animal right activists in opposing Canada's long-controversial seal hunt.
"Today it's the seal hunt. Tomorrow it could be something else," Shea told reporters.
Shea disputed suggestions that Canada was putting significantly larger industries at risk in order to fight for the seal hunt. Shea said the fight was largely being done on principle, and that other industries would not be threatened by the WTO action.
"We don't expect that this will have any effect whatsoever," Shea said.
Canada and the EU have been at what's called a "consultation stage" on the issue for about a year, no progress has been made. Shea said Canada will argue its case in Geneva, although a decision is not expected for at least 12 months.
"We have to take emotion out of this issue and get a ruling on the facts," Shea said.
A resolution to ban seal products was adopted by 27 European countries in 2009. Canada argues that the resolution violates the EU's trade obligations.
Inuit praise WTO challenge
The EU regulation includes limited exemptions for seal products from traditional Inuit hunts.
But Inuit groups, led by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) in Canada, have been trying to overturn the EU seal ban through a court challenge, arguing that the ban would still have a severe negative impact on their livelihoods.
In a statement Friday, ITK president Mary Simon praised the federal government for contesting the seal ban at the WTO.
"I appreciate the specific comments made by the ministers of Indian and northern affairs, fisheries and oceans, and Health Canada regarding Inuit sealing practices and their relevance today in 2011," Simon said.
"As we stated when we announced our court case against the EU Parliament in January 2010, the WTO actions taken by the Government of Canada do not hinder our legal actions, and I would argue they will complement our litigation."
The European Court of Justice has already ruled against the Inuit groups' challenge in October, saying the groups did not provide evidence to justify their fears. Simon has said the groups plan to appeal the court's decision.
Okalik Eegeesiak, president of the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in Nunavut, said she hopes Canada's WTO fight against the EU seal ban will show how such trade bans hurt real people on a community level.
"Thanks to Canada, this will help to educate the environmentalists and the animal-rights groups about Inuit and the wildlife that we live off of," she told CBC News in Iqaluit.
Eegeesiak said it's clear to Inuit that seals are not going extinct, while seal pelts are a sustainable resource that help Inuit economies.