On the eve of a European ban on seal products, Canada's Inuit are going all out to convert their VIP guests to the wonders of the blubbery grey mammal as they host this week's meeting of G7 finance ministers in Iqaluit.
Europe's political elite will be treated to a first-hand look, feel, and taste of the seal hunt's importance to life in the Far North.
The chairs the ministers will use during a private meeting in Nunavut's legislature are upholstered in shiny sealskin. The servers will sport sealskin hairpins. Seal vests and mitts will be given as gifts. And Saturday's evening feast at the local school will be an Inuit "country" supper of meats and fish from the land and sea, some of it served raw. Seal is on the menu.
Take that, PETA.
Canada's Inuit leaders are on the front lines of a lobbying war that has seen them crisscrossing the Atlantic in the hope of preventing a European Union ban this spring on seal products. The Inuit have so far lost out to the high-profile campaigns of animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who make effective use of celebrity supporters such as Paul McCartney. The PETA campaign against the "bloody seal slaughter" criticizes Canada as a clueless nation for allowing the hunt.
The Inuit plan on countering all that.
"The issue and topic of sealing will be very evident," said Nunavut Premier Eva Aariak in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday. Ms. Aariak said the visitors can be assured that Saturday's country feast will be prepared in "the most cuisine fashion," with an assortment of Arctic char jerky, muskox, blueberries, caribou, fish and seal.
"We hope that [the visit]will be the event of a lifetime for a lot of the delegates, knowing that they have never been this far north in their lives, and experiencing first-hand what Inuit are all about," Ms. Aariak said.
The most recent dignitaries to land in Iqaluit, Nunavut's small capital, embraced the hunt. Governor-General Michaëlle Jean made waves internationally last May when she helped carve a fresh seal and gulped down a piece of its bloody, raw heart.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper followed in August with his cabinet. They opted to show their support by releasing a staged photo of themselves preparing to sample from a tray of cooked seal bits with toothpicks.
This visit will be different. Four of the seven G7 nations are European: Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Japan, the United States and Canada round out the group.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty is not planning to wear seal at the gathering. His office says the location was chosen for its scenery and because it will allow the gathering to return to its informal beginnings.
But federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuit woman who represents Nunavut in the House of Commons, says visitors should learn that seal is the local, affordable option in the North, and that it is no different when southerners eat turkey and beef.
"It's absolutely an opportunity to educate the international community," she said, expressing her frustration with the anti-seal campaigns. "They're protesting because some rock star laid on the ice with a seal. … I'm frankly sick and tired of being a target of international organizations."
Inuit leader Mary Simon, who is currently on a personal leave, has campaigned against the EU seal ban at every turn. Her organization, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, filed a lawsuit last month in the European General Court to overturn the EU law that will ban the import of seal products.
In an opinion piece in The Globe and Mail last year, Ms. Simon wrote that the anti-seal campaign is an insult to indigenous people because it ignores the question of how meat ends up on the dinner tables of rich, urban societies.
"It is doubtful that a wild seal living in the Arctic would envy the life prospects of a factory-raised chicken," she wrote.
Last month, PETA took credit for an incident in Burlington, Ont., in which federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea got hit in the face with a pie.
The battle took a yet more bizarre turn a few days later in St. John's, Nfld., when a PETA protester in a seal costume was pied in the face by a counterprotester dressed as a dog.
Canada wants the G7 finance ministers meeting this week in Iqaluit to focus on the appalling mortality rates of mothers and small children in the developing world, but the Inuit who are hosting the gathering note that their people face many of the same problems.
In a speech in Davos, Switzerland, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said solutions like clean water and treatment for basic infections are within reach to address high mortality rates in the developing world.
Yet a research paper released by the Canadian Medical Association Journal the same week made similar points with respect to Canada's Inuit population, whose infant mortality rates are 2.66 times those in the rest of the country.
That isn't as bad as the situation in the poorest nations on Earth, but it is still a major social problem.
"A substantial part of the excess fetal and infant mortality in the Inuit-inhabited areas [of Canada]may be preventable," states the report, which recommends programs to curb maternal smoking and alcohol consumption, and improve awareness of how to care for an infant.
Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuit woman who represents the riding of Nunavut, said her government is working with the territory to improve infant mortality rates in the North. Ms. Aglukkaq said there are concrete efforts being made to curb smoking among pregnant women and new mothers.
"There's a lot of positive work being done," Ms. Aglukkaq said.
ON THE G7 AGENDA
Between Friday's dogsled ride and Saturday night's seal and muskox feast, the G7 finance ministers have a lot of weighty issues to discuss during their fireside chats.
- Financial regulatory reform: Britain and France want an international tax on bank bonuses. The United States wants rules that prevent banks from getting too big and other rules that will block banks from riskier forms of financial transactions. Canada places itself in the middle, showcasing its successful banking system as one that strikes the right regulatory balance. There is plenty to discuss and little expectation that a consensus will emerge.
- Third World Health: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week in Davos, Switzerland, that tackling mortality among mothers and small children in the developing world should be the organization's priority for 2010, while Canada is the host country.
- Future of the G7/G8: The G7 nations (Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States) met for the first time in 1976. It is widely expected that 2010 will see the role of the G7 and G8 (which also includes Russia) diminished significantly. The importance of the G20, which includes the developing powers of China and India, eclipsed that of the G7 last year as the main vehicle for addressing the global financial crisis.
- Haiti: Canada has called for a 10-year plan to rebuild Haiti from the rubble of last month's devastating earthquake. The finance ministers are expected to discuss the role of wealthy nations in the rebuilding effort.