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Angry Inuk: challenging stereotypes, facing backlash and taking #sealfies

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril wants people to know she is angry and will not be silent anymore. The Inuk filmmaker is behind the documentary, Angry Inuk, which opened the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto this year. The film focuses on young, social-media savvy Inuit as they try to set the record straight about seal hunting, and addresses the powerful anti-sealing movement and the destructive effect seal bans have had on Inuit economy and culture.
Angry Inuk by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril challenges stereotypes of the Inuit seal hunt. (Angry Inuk film)

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril wants people to know she is angry and will not be silent anymore.

The Inuk filmmaker is behind the documentary, Angry Inuk, which opened the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto this year.

The film focuses on young, social-media savvy Inuit as they try to set the record straight about seal hunting, and addresses the powerful anti-sealing movement and the destructive effect seal bans have had on Inuit economy and culture.

"The majority of commercial sealers are Inuit," said Arnaquq-Baril who recently won the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival's Audience Award for her film.
Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Alethea Arnaquq-Baril)

"For some reason, the animal groups keep kind of denying that and whitewashing the image of seal hunting so that it appears to be a mainly non-native activity."

'Whitewashing' leaves Inuit in silent poverty

Arnaquq-Baril said Inuit have been left out of the conversation and left to sit silent as they slide deeper into poverty. While there are several sealskin bans around the world, she said the European Union's 1983 ban on whitecoat harp seal pups had the largest impact on Inuit. After that was passed, she said prices for all seal products plummeted.

"We've never really recovered from that."

She explained that after Inuit were forced off of the land and into sedentary communities throughout the 1950s and '60s, Inuit became depended on the sealskin market for cash income.

"The animal rights groups and the anti-seal hunt campaigns took away that source of income," she explained. "So people have been living with the resulting poverty ever since."

Initially, she wanted to focus her film on the history of sealing and the effects of the EU ban. But soon after filming began, the EU passed a new ban in 2009, even more strict than the previous one.

#Sealfies stir controversy

A collection of #sealfies - photos that show how important the seal hunt is to Canadian Inuit and others.
Suddenly Arnaquq-Baril found herself in a firestorm of controversy.

She and fellow activists took to social media, asking Inuit to take pictures of themselves wearing sealskin and hunting seals and posting them to social media using the #sealfies hashtag.

"It got quite a bit of media attention and I think, changed a lot of people's minds. I think when people have an opportunity to hear from a unique perspective, their minds are changed very quickly when it comes to seal hunting."

Even though thousands participated, it was not without backlash. Many people, including Arnaquq-Baril and throat singer Tanya Tagaq, were subject to online abuse, vitriol and even death threats when they posted  their #sealfies.

"It wasn't just me being attacked. It was a lot of Inuit, it was all Inuit. I felt a certain amount of guilt having taken part in the campaign and really pushed and promoted it. I felt a lot of guilt that there might be other Inuit out there receiving the same kind of hatred and vitriol and I might have played a part in making that happen," she said.

It was enough to force her back into silence. She took a year off from making Angry Inuk and cut herself off from the Internet and media to focus on her family. But it would not be long before Arnaquq-Baril was back behind her camera, more outspoken than ever before.

"At some point I just decided you know what the status quo isn't cutting it. I see people living in poverty around me. Inuit children are going to school hungry, seven in 10 Inuit children go to school hungry and it's not right. I can't be quiet about it." 

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