Revisiting the European Seal Ban: A Perspective on Canadian Arctic Policy

Starting in 2010, the European Union banned all seal imports from Canada across all its member states. EU representatives justified its decision by stating it had been facing steep public pressure, as EU officials have received numerous letters from its citizens about the inhumane ways that seals were being killed. As of today, Canadian policymakers have made little progress to reverse or renegotiate the ban in any manner.

Background

When the EU first introduced the ban, Canada immediately filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization, arguing that the European ban was unreasonable and planned with little oversight. Canada asserted that its seal-hunting was humane and sustainable, and also accused that EU officials have fallen for interest groups like PETA that have aggressively lobbied for seal-hunting to be banned, presenting emotional imagery to the public and exaggerating the amount of seals hunted by indigenous peoples. The EU was intent on keeping the ban, as its officials stated the ban was imposed due to tremendous European pressure. Additionally, Canada stressed that the ban would significantly hinder its indigenous peoples in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories as their economy relies heavily on the seal hunt. The WTO did not reverse the ban, instead only ordering the EU that the Inuit communities should be exempt.

Even though Inuit seal imports can still enter Europe, its communities have continued to suffer ever since the ban took place. A report by the Nunavummiut government showed that the exemption still harmed the Inuit economy for two major reasons. The first being in the past, Inuit hunters have benefited from high market interest in the global economy, where consumers were heavily invested in products made from harp seals, where around 300,000 pelts are produced annually by hunters from the Maritime Provinces. The Inuit communities have mainly produced pelts from ringed seals, numbering at around 8000 annually. Since the pelts produced by the Inuit pale in comparison to the Maritime Provinces, the success of the Inuit seal industry has largely depended on larger harp seal industry. But now with seals from the Maritime Provinces banned in Europe, the Inuit economy has stagnated. Europe also happens to be the main trendsetter of the global fashion industry, and with a low demand in seal pelts in the region, global demand also falls. Following the ban, the market value of ringed seals fell by around 92 percent.

The other factor that makes the Inuit exemption ineffective is due to the wording of the exemption. Only Inuit-made pelts are exempt while Inuit-harvested pelts are not, as the harvested pelts are no longer considered Inuit-made. While sealskin garments are a growing sector, harvesting seals remains an integral of the Inuit economy, and the wording of the regulation has effectively rendered the exemption meaningless.

Effects Today

Eight years after the EU ban, numerous other countries have followed suit with similar bans of their own. By April 2018, India became the 35th country to ban all seal products from Canada. And while the Nunavummiut economy has improved recently, as seal imports to the EU tripled last year, Nunavut’s Finance Minister David Akeeagok still stated that the increase was not enough.

Currently, Canada has also invested little resources in growing the northern economy. While the federal government has planned to invest in eco-tourism, renewable energy testing, and alternative forms of fishing in the north, development has been slow. It is still too early for northern communities to transition to these industries and move away from seal-hunting.

Potential Solutions?

If Canadian decision-makers decide to move forward with re-negotiating the seal ban with European officials, they could focus on rallying international support by addressing the hardships indigenous peoples have faced, as the EU has a history of never addressing indigenous issues in its policymaking, Canada could also present figures to the EU that its sealing industries has never violated the EU’s guidelines of sustainable development, and also show misleading information released by interest groups. Many interest groups have showed images of baby seals being killed to rally support for the ban, but the Canadian sealing industry does not kill baby seals. Concurrently, the seal hunt does not harm ecosystems as seals in Canada are not endangered species. In fact, Canadian sealers have recently called for an increase in hunting after observing a spike in seal populations.

While negotiating, Canada could also consider cooperating with Iceland and Norway, two countries that have also panned the EU seal ban in the past. They have also assisted Canada in the past when it lobbied at the WTO to make the EU make an exception in their ban for the Inuit. However, Canada risks alienating other economic allies as they view Iceland and Norway’s whaling practices with suspicion. And unlike seals, most hunted species of whales are endangered. 

Lawmakers in Nunavut are also planning to approach this issue from another perspective. MLA Arreak Lightstone has suggested that the Nunavummiut government consider extending an olive branch to the EU, and engage in an open dialogue on issues with the seal hunt. Nunavut had previously retaliated against the EU with an alcohol ban in 2010, and with the territory sporting a small economy, the ban was not effective at all. 

Future Concerns

The governments of Northern Canada have already expressed their disapproval with the federal government numerous times in the past, due to its lack of investment in expanding and diversifying the northern economy. Their most recent grievance was due to a joint drilling ban with the United States in the northern region. The seal ban is an issue that the federal government has to quickly address, as not only are northern communities reliant on seals, the seal-hunt and crafts made from pelt are an essential in Inuit culture.

During Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s time in office so far, he has often stepped away from issues in the Arctic, and phased out Arctic strategies that were in place when Stephen Harper was in office, such as ending military exercises in the Arctic. With the Conservatives slowly making strides in the polls this month, there is a solid chance that all three seats in Northern Canada may flip Conservative if constituents believe the current government is not addressing issues in the Arctic. 


Above Photo: A seal hunter from the Innu First Nation, who mostly live in the eastern areas of Labrador and Québec.  (CBC)

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