On 15 March, Canadian embassies and consulates around the world were subjected to rare displays of political theatre, much of it both angry and scantily clad.
In Barcelona, men armed with clubs and appareled as hunters pursued half-naked women bathed in stage blood. In Canberra, five Australian women simply stripped bare before the High Commission in silent protest. High school students in Naples, Florida, were more modest, opting to remain clothed and holding up cutely painted signs that read, “Hug me/Don’t club me” for passing motorists.
All this was part of a coordinated global day of action against Canada’s annual commercial seal hunt, the only national habit for which Canadians tend to get called a lot of nasty names abroad. The cull officially opened last week in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and will climax off the eastern coast of Newfoundland in early April.
If this year’s protestors were more emboldened, it was because the 2010 hunt is the first to occur since the European Union voted to ban imported seal products. Animal rights activists hope that the ban will eventually force a collapse in the seal market and convince Ottawa to end the hunt for good.
Rather than show signs of bending, however, many Canadians are becoming rather prickly and patriotic over the issue – irritated especially that the embargo might come from a continent with a fondness for things such as veal and foie gras.
Supporting sealers, native and non-native, all of whom tend to live in remote communities, has suddenly become an article of faith among politicians from all the federal parties. Nowadays, the professed cultural and economic necessity of the hunt is the only issue on which the country’s normally fractious and foul-tempered parliament can agree.
In a memo to his own party, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked that all politicians “stand united behind Canadian sealers, instead of undermining the hunt and undercutting the livelihood of Canadian families.”
And Ottawa is indulging some political theatre of its own. Seal meat was recently added to the commissary’s menu at Parliament, including one dish described as “double-smoked, bacon-wrapped seal loin in pork reduction.” Seal meat was even served at a recent meeting of G7 finance ministers that Canada hosted. Etiquette would normally dictate that you do not serve guests something you know they cannot eat.
To compensate for the loss of the European market, Canada is aggressively pitching seal products to Asia. At January’s International Leather and Fur Show in Beijing, a government-sponsored booth advertised sealskin fashions and the animal’s other sundry uses, for example, as an ingredient in medicinal oils. South Korea has already certified seal meat as fit for human consumption, and awarded the necessary import licenses; trade officials hope China will soon follow.
In coming days the seal hunt follies will move out onto the ice itself, as the cull reaches its final, bloodiest stage. It’s off Newfoundland’s east coast, on ice-choked hunting waters known as “The Front”, that not only are the largest numbers of seals killed, but where activists secure the most suitably shocking imagery for use in their next campaign.
How ordinary Canadians feel about the seal hunt depends upon which side has commissioned the polling and how questions have been phrased. You can find conflicting polls that suggest a majority of Canadians both support and oppose it. They may not actually be so confused. They might just have a much more nuanced view toward the hunt than either their government or the activists do.