Misguided social activism is prevalent among Generation-Z, and in the case of the seal hunt, this misguided activism has had a very detrimental impact on the Inuit communities of the North.
The Inuit people, who have occupied lands in North America for thousands of years, have sustained themselves along the Arctic circle by hunting and fishing. Seal, in particular, has served as an important resource for the Inuit peoples.
The pelt is used for clothing to protect against the harsh Arctic cold, the meat as an important source of nutrients and fat, the body oil for lamps and igloos. When came colonization and the arrival of Europeans, the seal also served as an important means of trade, and therefore economic sustenance. Point being – the seal has served as a pinnacle means of survival, not just traditionally and culturally, but economically – and quite literally as a primary source of food and resources.
Seals have been hunted sustainably by the Inuit for centuries, but commercial/mass seal hunting only really began with the colonization of North America, and more specifically, around the mid-20th-century. In the 1950s, the Great Banks fisheries(the North Atlantic) were subject to intensive industrial fishing. This resulted in what is now referred to as the collapse of the cod fishery. It hit fishing areas very hard, particularly the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, whose economy was heavily driven by the cod fishery. As the cod fishery collapsed, many fishers turned to an alternative – seal. It is true that around this time, seal populations hit a concerning low, an estimated 1.5 million in 1978. However, since, the Canadian government has enforced stricter sealing laws, put more effort into scientific research to produce the best practices for hunting seals, and populations have steadily grown – they were estimated at 7.7 million off the Atlantic coast.
To further demonstrate that seal hunting has decreased substantially, the average number of Northwest Atlantic harp seals harvested annually fell from 366,000 in 2006 to 40,370 in 2011. Less than 1,000 were catches in the Arctic. According to a report by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “the Northwest Atlantic harp seal population has increased fourfold since the 1970s”. It is important to note that the Maritime sealing industry and the Inuit seal-hunt are fundamentally different, but the stigma around the former inadvertently affects the latter and has significantly impacted Inuit livelihoods.
The History of Anti-Seal Hunt Activism
This all started back in the 80s, when ill-informed animal rights groups took it upon themselves to fight for the ban of the sale of whitecoat harp seal pup skins, which, again is illegal and the Inuit do not hunt. In 1983, they were successful, the European Union banned their sale, and as a result, caused the entire seal skin market to collapse. While Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare rejoiced, incomes for Inuit seal hunters fell significantly, and in an already economically barren environment, stricken by residential schools and now a ban on their primary source of economic livelihood, suicide rates spiked.
Now for clarification sake, both Greenpeace and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have stated time and time again that they do not oppose Inuit (‘subsistence’-based hunting), as has the EU cleared up their seal-hunting laws. But as Inuit activists argue, the damage has already been done – creating a stigma around banned seal products has seriously hurt the seal skin market.
I’ve done a very bare-bones explanation of a very intricate and complex history and practice, and I highly suggest anyone interested or curious to watch Angry Inuk, directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Bari– a brilliantly done documentary on the seal hunt and its importance to Inuit communities.
It’s also interesting to note that much of anti-seal activism conveniently leaves the Inuit out of the conversation altogether. A page on theHumane Society of the United States on the seal hunt speaks in detail of the alleged negatives of the seal hunt – how barbaric it is, that it’s of no benefit to the economy, and that the seal hunt would be “easily shut down”. It also claims “97 percent of the harp seals killed are pups under just three months of age”, a fact backed by no sources or citations, and very contentious given “the harvesting of harp seal pups, known as whitecoats, and hooded seal pups, known as bluebacks, is illegal in Canada and has been since 1987”.
Most interestingly, the entire page makes absolutely no mention of the Inuit people, and the necessity of the seal hunt up north. To add even further to the seal-pup argument, the Inuit never hunted young seals before they were illegal to start with. By the time the seals reached the north, they were mature. So all the rhetoric around hunting seal pups targeted by the seal-hunt campaigns were entirely misguided and based on myths.
Why I’ve Boycotted LUSH
A lot of people know LUSH best for their bath bombs or hair products, I’m not quite sure what else. There’s a great deal of millennial support behind this company mainly because they are a vegan and animal cruelty-free company, that also does a lot of animal cruelty activism.
Let me clarify something first, I have nothing against veganism or supporting companies that are against animal cruelty and only sell fair trade products. By all means, I think these are wonderful causes and more companies should be making efforts to support them. Go veganism, go fair trade, go sustainability.
So why my problem with Lush? Sustainable consumerism should not come at the cost of other people’s’ livelihood. Especially people who have been colonized, discriminated against, and had to fight to keep their communities and cultures alive.
In 2009, in partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Lush launched a ‘Ban the Seal Hunt’ campaign, with the catchy slogan of: “End Canada’s License to Kill”. It used the typical misleading imagery, photos of baby seals, a bloody Canadian flag, and again conveniently left the Inuit completely out of their narrative. This was until they were met with enough backlash that they issued an apology, saying, “we regret that standing up against animal cruelty negatively impacts these communities”, an apology that sounds much like the childish taunt of ‘sucks to be you’. To so ignorantly inflict harm on a community and issue such a passive apology, in my personal opinion, is very shameful for a company that prides itself on social justice initiatives.
In comments to Nunatsiaq News, Inuk performer Tanya Tagaq shared her thoughts on the activism and its repercussions:
“This vision of hypocrisy concerning the seal hunt is certainly unnerving to those who live alongside these animals. We watch the rest of the country eat, earn money and live off of a multitude of species,” she wrote, “yet a small Indigenous group of people (who have been forced into the socio-economic realms of capitalism) remain vilified and cornered into poverty by anti-sealing campaigns such as this.”
I know what the big criticism of my vendetta against Lush is probably going to be – that no one can be a perfectly socially conscious consumer. And I don’t think they can be (or have to be). That’s not to say we shouldn’t all be trying a bit harder to be better consumers – buy second-hand, stop supporting multinational companies with clear bad human right track records, but I know it’s not necessarily always attainable or possible for some people.
My issue, particularly with LUSH, is, they are some of the most morally righteous consumers I’ve ever had the displeasure of meeting. This brings me to the bulk of my argument. The problem isn’t specifically with LUSH or the seal hunt, it’s with the misguided social activism that has taken much of the millennial generation, particularly those who are white and come from a place of privilege. These are the people who spend thousands on volunteer trips at orphanages abroad, not caring about the implications of their actions or whether they’re doing more harm than good.
What strikes me most about many of the supporters of the seal ban today is the hypocrisy, the hypocrisy among the white vegan generation that prides itself on social activism but fails to look beyond their privilege when choosing which fights to fight.
We live in an age of very acute social justice awareness. In some ways, this widespread awareness has made our society more accepting of different people, especially minority groups in Western countries and communities. However, this new social justice awareness has also come with a new, and strange, form of neocolonialism. The white savior complex has somehow embedded itself in such a harrowing lack of self-awareness that it’s become a leading proponent for social justice awareness, without realizing that it’s one of the biggest problems with social justice progress today.
So my opinion on this ultimately boils down to this – unless you are actively working towards causes to support Northern communities in their economic and agricultural livelihoods, you have no right to support a ban on the seal hunt. None. Ethical arguments aside, it’s just a ridiculous thing to advocate for, because it is essentially siding with animals over human beings. In an ideal world, people wouldn’t have to kill to survive, but the circumstances surrounding the Arctic are far different and starker than what most of us are accustomed to. So until a solution is found, set the seal hunt activism aside and support causes that need supporting – help out fellow human beings as opposed to animals.