How One Documentary Is Changing People’s Minds About The Inuit Seal Hunt

I would have never imagined it five years ago, that this doc would make such a huge difference.

Angry Inuk, first debuted at the Hot Docs Film Festival in the spring of 2016.  The film, directed by Inuk Alethea Arnaquq-Baril gives an indigenous point-of-view to the anti-sealing ban that was imposed on northern communities in 1983.

“I’ve never met these anti-sealers face-to-face,” says Arnaquq-Baril in the film. “I wanted to make this film because it bothered me when I saw animal welfare groups portray seal hunting as an evil and greedy thing.”

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Aaju talks about the advantages of sealskin products.

A coalition of Greenpeace and other animal welfare groups were successful in lobbying the European Union to ban sealskin products made from white-coat harp pup seals. Even though the legislation only targeted one type of sealskin, the campaign ruined the reputation of sealskin and the whole market crashed.

It was a life-altering event for Canada’s Inuit.

“We live in a hard environment and have no economy,” says Aaju Peter, a sealskin clothing designer, lawyer and long-time Inuit activist, who has spent decades fighting the ban. The Inuit were dependent on the sealskin market for food, clothing and cash to support their families. Almost immediately, incomes crashed, and the suicide rate skyrocketed in Inuit communities.

Things hadn’t changed much when Angry Inuk finally hit the screens in Toronto at Hot Docs. Peter and Arnaquq-Baril expected some blowback from animal rights activists and were shocked when hundreds of people stood up to thank them for making the film.

“I never thought I’d be able to be in the South in a room full of non-Inuit and be able to feel understood,” said Arnaquq-Baril to CBC News.

The film went on to win the Vimeo on Demand Audience Award and a $25,000 cash prize at the Hot Docs festival.

In the eighteen months since, Angry Inuk has been shown to enthusiastic audiences at film festivals around the world, from Paris to Greenland, and selected by the Toronto International Film Festival as one of Canada’s Top 10 films of 2016. Peter says that the filmmakers are keen to translate the documentary into other languages to reach more people, especially in countries with a culture of seal hunting.  

Angry Inuk details the blowback to the #sealfie social media campaign that Arnaquq-Baril started to shed a positive light on the sealing industry.

“Our tiny little corner of the internet has exploded with hateful messages,” she lamented when the hashtag was hijacked by supporters of the sealing ban.  

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Alethea receives hateful messages in response to her sealfie campaign.

But since the film debuted, indigenous and non-indigenous Twitter users are using the hashtag #sealfie again in support of indigenous sealers.

The film is helping to educate people says Peter. She wears her sealskin products to screenings and is often approached by people who want to purchase the same thing.

Peter finds that even in Brussels, one of the member states in the European Union, that instituted the ban, attitudes are softening. “There’s now a willingness to find ways to make it possible for the Inuit to financially support themselves from the hunt,” she says. Ultimately Peters would like to see a complete end to the ban or “at least support for a sustainable hunt.” The fact is, says Peters, some seal populations, like harp and grey seals, are on the increase. “We have an overpopulation of seals that could feed so many people.”

Seal meat has even started to appear on southern restaurant menus. Last fall, news that Toronto restaurant Ku-kum Kitchen was offering seal tartare sparked an online debate. A petition in support of the restaurant asked why one small indigenous restaurant was targeted when “there were literally hundreds of restaurants in Toronto that serve meat.” Seal meat has also appeared on menus in Vancouver, St John’s and Montreal.

At a recent screening in Windsor, Ontario organizers went one step further and served jerky made from seal to the audience

Changing opinions, one movie theatre at a time, has been key.  “I would have never imagined five years ago that this doc would have made such a big difference,” remarks Peter.