A petition calling for a Toronto restaurant to remove seal meat from the menu has sparked an online debate between people who believe the Canadian seal hunt is inhumane and advocates for Indigenous practices.
Ku-kum Kitchen in midtown serves two dishes with seal meat — a traditional Indigenous food — in the form of tartare.
The original petition calls for the restaurant to remove seal from its menu.
"I started a petition for the restaurant to remove seal meat from the menu because it is sourced by the commercial hunt and not the Indigenous hunt," Jennifer Matos wrote in an email to CBC Toronto.
The counter-petition asks why the woman who started the original call to action is targeting an Indigenous restaurant when "there are literally hundreds of restaurants in Toronto that serve meat."
"It's time to stop the cycle of wilfully ignorant Canadians who continue to impose their ill-considered values upon Indigenous practices and people," the petition states.
'Canadians need to step back and start looking at Indigenous people... with respect that our culture is different.' - Aylan Couchie, Anishanaabe artist
Aylan Couchie, a Toronto artist, started the counter-petition. She's Anishanaabe from the Nipissing First Nation.
"When I first saw [the original petition] I thought, 'Oh, great,'" Couchie said. "We're used to dealing with this mis-education and a little bit of ignorance about stereotypes on the regular."
"I find it really heart-breaking that a very strong network of animal rights activists are targeting one single, small, startup, independent, Indigenous restaurant. That's a really heavy load to bear."
She said she was disheartened to not only see nearly 2,000 signatures on the original petition, but also the negative reviews targeting Ku-kum Kitchen on Google and Facebook. Some of those reviews came from people in Australia and the United States, Couchie said — and presumably have never set foot into the restaurant.
Her goal in starting the counter-petition was to show support for Ku-kum Kitchen and those who are doing their part to reclaim Indigenous culture.
"It's also opened up a lot of dialogue," Couchie said. "And it was a platform for more education on the whole issue."
"Under the guise of reconciliation, I think Canadians need to step back and start looking at Indigenous people and Indigenous culture with respect that our culture is different."
CBC Toronto reached out to Joseph Shawana, the chef at Ku-kum Kitchen on Tuesday, however, he scheduled all media interviews for Wednesday.
He has previously commented on putting seal meat on the menu.
In an interview with CBC in June, Shawana said he first fell in love with food while cooking next to his grandmother on Manitoulin Island's Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve in Ontario. Ku-kum is the Cree word for grandmother, a tribute to the women in his life who inspire his love of cooking.
In that same interview, Shawana said he had hesitated to serve seal meat.
"We know there'll be a little bit of people that will be upset about it," he told CBC's Eli Glasner. "But it's part of the northern community's culture. So we're trying to pay homage to them, as we do with everything else.… It's all dietary needs of the Indigenous communities from east to west."
A familiar debate
This is far from the first time seal meat has caused a stir in Canada. Earlier this year, a Vancouver restaurant made headlines after offering Newfoundland seal pappardelle at this year's Dine Out Vancouver festival.
"[Seal] certainly comes with its controversy, but I think it's an important part of Canada's food history and Canada's food story, and I think it's a discussion worth having," chef Eric Pateman of Edible Canada told CBC in January.
Canada's seal hunt has been the subject of protest for decades, with animal rights groups and celebrities like Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson calling for an end to the "inherently inhumane" killing of young seals.
The restaurant's supplier, SeaDNA, voiced its support for Ku-kum Kitchen on Monday and defended its harvesting practices.
As the proud supplier of Chef Joseph we are glad to stand behind him, our industry and our products. We are dedicated to responsible and full-usage of this great Canadian resource. We encourage anyone with questions to head to seadna.ca to learn more.— @seadnacanada
SeaDNA's Jonas Gilbart told CBC Toronto the company is happy to stand behind Shawana's decision to serve seal meat.
"We know that our industry is a controversial one, but for us it's very important that we have these conversations and we discuss the state of the industry right now in Canada in an honest way," Gilbart said.
"We can never change a person's morality or ethics. All we can ask is that they look at it with the facts in mind."
He pointed to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which closely monitors the annual harvest quota for seal herds and requires mandatory training for sealers. The department enforces a three-step process in how seals are killed, regulates the tools used and bans the harvesting of young seals.
"We could probably tell you what fisherman or what harvester caught your seal or brought your seal home," he said. "All we ask is that consumers in Canada, people who eat meat, have honest conversations about what we would demand of our sourcing and of ourselves."
Ku-kum Kitchen is the only Toronto restaurant SeaDNA supplies, but Gilbart said the company also works with several restaurants in Quebec and British Columbia as well as more than a dozen in Atlantic Canada.
Sylvanus Thompson, a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health, told CBC Toronto he is not aware of any rules that prohibit the sale of seal meat in restaurants.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency told CBC seals are subject to the same food safety requirements as other aquatic food products intended for human consumption. There are no federal regulations against serving seal meat in restaurants.
SeaDNA said its processing facilities are all certified by the CFIA.
A previous version of this article stated that chef Joseph Shawana declined a request for interview. In fact, he had scheduled all media interviews for Wednesday.Oct 11, 2017 1:02 PM ET