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Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon, third from left, criticizes the European Union's ban on Canadian seal products Tuesday at the Inuit Circumpolar Council's assembly in Nuuk, Greenland. ((CBC))

Canada's top Inuit leader and other Inuit leaders meeting in Greenland this week have blasted a senior European Union official for his government's upcoming ban on Canadian seal products.

The EU's seal product ban, slated to come into force on Aug. 20, was not on the official agenda at this week's Inuit Circumpolar Council general assembly in Nuuk, Greenland's capital city.

But the issue quickly surfaced Tuesday after Nicholas Hanley, the EU's head of international relations for environment, made a presentation to the assembly about environmental issues not related to sealing.

After his presentation, Hanley was presented with a small piece of dyed seal skin as a gift. Accepting the gift, Hanley told the audience that the EU's seal product ban exempts products harvested by Inuit.

'Empty box'

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Inuit have argued that their trade of seal skins and other products has been ruined by the European Union's trade ban, even with limited exemptions for Inuit seal products. ((CBC))

Adopted by 27 countries last year, the EU seal product ban is mainly in response to Canada's East Coast seal hunt, which EU officials and animal-rights activists have considered to be an inhumane harvest.

The EU regulation includes limited exemptions for seal products derived from traditional Inuit hunts.

"As far as we're concerned, the exemption that the EU is offering is an empty box," Mary Simon, president of the Canadian Inuit organization Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said in response to Hanley's comment.

Simon called the exemption an insult, arguing that the trade ban has ruined the seal market for Inuit who have long harvested seals for food, clothing and income.

"I don't think there's anybody in any country that should be telling us how we should live our lives," she said.

Iqaluit sealing activist Aaju Peter also confronted Hanley about the ban, arguing that it has prevented sealers from selling any skins.

"That has been devastating for our families in the communities," Peter said.

Ban being contested

In response to the criticism, Hanley asked the Inuit delegates why so much attention has been focused on the EU seal product ban, when he said there has been a similar ban in the United States for decades.

The Canadian government is contesting the EU ban before the World Trade Organization, arguing that seals are harvested humanely and sustainably.

Inuit organizations in Canada and Greenland are also trying to block the EU ban, filing an injunction with a European court earlier this year.

"The practical consequences of the seal ban, or the ban on seal products, has been a collpase of any economic opportunity for Inuit to sell their products," said Jimmy Stotts, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

"I personally view this as a disrespect and disregard of Inuit culture."