North

Are attitudes around seal products changing?

The federal government is calling for proposals for the $5.7 million allotted to bolster the seal industry in Indigenous communities, a signal that attitudes around seal products may be changing.

Feds put out call for proposals for $5.7M to support indigenous seal industry

Industry, government and community leaders gathered for a seal dinner to commemorate Seal Day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Office of the Minister of Fisheries)

The federal government is calling for proposals for the $5.7 million allotted to bolster the seal industry in Indigenous communities, a signal that attitudes around seal products may be changing.

"People have come to understand that it isn't what the animal rights activists are trying to portray out there — we do harvest our seals in a sustainable way," said fisheries minister and Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo.

'People have come to understand that it isn’t what the animal rights activists are trying to portray out there,' says fisheries minister Hunter Tootoo. (Office of the Minister of Fisheries)

"When I was in Brussels last month I wore my sealskin tie over there. I got lots of comments on it, and people saw the shoes, they wanted to order shoes."

Tootoo has made a habit of sporting sealskin ties and accessories wherever he goes.

On his recent visit to the White House, Tootoo even gifted the sealskin tie he was wearing to U.S. President Barack Obama, after he said he liked it.  

Seal Day on the Hill

This year at Parliament Hill's annual Seal Day, a showcase of sealskin parkas and handicrafts, the federal government announced a call for proposals for a $5.7 million funding program to help Indigenous communities market and sell sealskin products to the world.

"It means a lot because we need the money," said Nunavut environment minister Johnny Mike.

Mike said the funds would go a long way in bolstering the sealing industry across the territory.

The money is from the Certification and Market Access Program for Seals (CMAPS), a five-year program that sets up evaluation and tracking systems to ensure seal products harvested by Indigenous communities can be sold in the European Union.

The program also supports Indigenous seal products, businesses, and access to new markets for the commercial seal industry.

Reviving the commercial market for sealskin products has been a priority for Nunavut since anti-sealing campaigns and the European Union's ban on seal products in 2009 caused pelt prices to plummet.

Last year, the Government of Nunavut negotiated an exemption from the EU ban, which allows the import of seal products certified as harvested by Indigenous peoples.

Nunavut's environment minister says all these changes mean a difference in this year's Seal Day in Ottawa.

"It's more advanced from last year," said Mike.

"We have a caucus now that is willing to work together to promote and protect our interest in sealing programs and also to further the education to the outside world and to the anti-sealing groups around the world."

'Attitudes are changing'

"I think attitudes are changing and they're changing significantly," said Labrador MP Yvonne Jones.

Jones said events such as Seal Day help inform other politicians in Canada about the cultural and economic significance of the seal industry in the North.

"We want them to understand it and we want them to respect it," said Jones.

"This has been a part of who we are for many, many generations in this country — we have a sustainable harvest and we have one of the most regulated industries in Canada."

Inuit designers and artists have been working for years to highlight the importance of sustainably produced seal products to the economy in the North.

"There are so many talented and creative Nunavut artists who work with sealskin and seal products to make beautiful parkas, kamiks, purses, jewelry and more," said Rowena House, director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.

"The market is expanding. Now more than ever, there is a worldwide interest in Nunavut arts and crafts."

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.