The European Union's ban on the import of seal products was not discussed as part of the free trade negotiations between Canada and Europe, CBC News has confirmed.
A source close to the negotiations told CBC Radio's Fisheries Broadcast that the seal ban was considered, but it was felt that the issue was a dispute best left to be resolved under the ongoing World Trade Organization dispute process.
The European Union officially banned the import of seal products in August 2010 over disputed and controversial animal welfare concerns. Canada appealed the ban at the WTO on the grounds that the seal harvest is sustainable and humane, and that the ban violates the EU's trade obligations.
The WTO is expected to hand down its decision on that appeal in just a few days.
While it may seem the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) negotiations with Europe — which came with a substantial series of fishing industry and seafood market provisions — would have been an ideal time to resolve the matter, industry representatives say it seemed clear early on that was not going to be the case.
"When [former parliamentary secretary to the minister of international trade] Gerald Keddy came down several months ago ... I raised the issues of where seals stood on the issue," Frank Pinhorn of the Canadian Sealers' Association said in an interview.
"He implied that seals were not part of this and it was going to be done afterwards."
Pinhorn said he was concerned by that view.
"I simply said — based on the history of the government dealing with the sealing industry — [that] afterwards rarely if ever comes, and it's never really dealt with."
Tough talk on seals
There had been a lot of tough talk in Ottawa about the seal product ban in recent years.
As recently as this past April, then-fisheries minister Keith Ashfield and former health minister Leona Aglukkaq issued a joint statement calling the EU ban on seal products, "a political decision that has no basis in fact or science."
They further noted that they would, "continue to defend Canadian interests in this regard on the world stage," and that, "the Canadian government will continue to send a strong message that we are serious about defending our legitimate commercial seal harvest."
In the end, it seems those hard-line words did not come to action at the CETA negotiating table.
"They were very vague about any connection with the sealing industry," Pinhorn said. "I can understand the sensitivity to the commercial fishing industry and sensitivity to markets and things like that, but the sealing industry is an integral part of rural Newfoundland and Labrador."
General Court rejection
The WTO challenge is not the only step that has been taken to address the EU seal ban.
This past April, the General Court of the EU rejected a claim from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and other groups that had wanted to overturn the ban.
ITK, the Fur Institute of Canada and sealing organizations argued that the 2010 ban was effectively preventing seal products from any source from entering the EU, even though Inuit were to be exempt from the ban.
The court rejected that assertion, saying that, "The General Court confirms that the objective of the basic regulation, which is the improvement of the conditions of functioning of the internal market, taking into account the protection of animal welfare, cannot be satisfactorily achieved by action undertaken only in the member states and requires action at EU level."