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Anti-seal hunt rhetoric ignores facts and suppresses Indigenous culture

Aylan Couchie is a multidisciplinary artist and writer from Nipissing First Nation in Northern Ontario. Ian Mosby is a settler historian of food, health and colonialism in Canada and lives in Toronto.

Every year, roughly two million cows, 20 million pigs and 1.5 billion kilograms of broiler chickens (or roughly 550 million birds) are killed in Canada. Contrast those numbers, then, with the roughly 70,000 seals that were killed as part of Canada's commercial seal harvest in 2016.

The ratio, in other words, is somewhere in the range of 8,000 to 1. As Fisheries and Oceans Canada notes, "Canada's seal population is healthy and abundant." Seals, in other words, aren't an endangered or even threatened species, and their population has been steadily growing for decades.

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These facts counter the argument made by activist Jennifer Matos in her recently posted petition against a small Indigenous-owned restaurant in Toronto. Kūkŭm Kitchen is one of just a small handful of restaurants serving Indigenous foods in a city that has literally thousands of restaurants serving meat of one kind or another. Yet it's the one that has been singled out in this petition for scorn and boycott by a network of animal rights activists worldwide.

Matos' petition calls for Kūkŭm to take seal meat off their menu because the seal "slaughters" as she calls them "are very violent, horrific, traumatizing and unnecessary." A Facebook page that leads to the petition includes a photo of a cute, white baby seal; this suggests that such young animals are targets of the seal hunt, despite the fact hunting pups has been banned in Canada for decades.

The fact that Kūkŭm is an Indigenous-owned business – its chef, Joseph Shawana, is from Wikwemkoong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island – isn't good enough.

"Although this is an indigenous restaurant," the petition notes, "the seal meat comes from a commercial company called SeaDNA therefore has nothing to do with the indigenous hunt." Never mind that it's the Inuit who make up most of the commercial seal hunters and Inuit economies which are most dependent upon the commercial seal hunt. Besides, signatories to the petition clearly see this as being about more than sourcing.

Signatory Heidi E. writes, "This is a barbaric act that belongs in the shameful area's in our history books," while Harriet F. goes so far as to ask: "What is wrong with Canadians? What happened to you people that you are all turning into savages? Seals are not to eat and not for fur."

As Aylan has already noted in a counter petition that she started, this kind of anti-seal hunt rhetoric and the anti-Indigenous beliefs at its core have a long history of being detrimental to the well-being of Inuit communities.

The economic, social and cultural devastation wrought by decades of anti-sealing activism is perhaps most powerfully documented by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril in her 2016 documentary Angry Inuk. The movie makes it abundantly clear that these kinds of distinctions between an "Indigenous hunt" and "commercial hunt" are false flags.

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But built into the anti-seal campaigns are false notions of the Inuit as hunter-gatherers who cease to be Indigenous or traditional once they begin to participate in the commercial market. This attitude was reflected in the comments of Gaylene C. on the anti-Kūkŭm petition. "Keep seal tradition to native communities only," she writes. "Don't want colonization [sic], then don't do this. No more aboriginals selling culture for money!"

Absent from these kinds of critiques is the fact that the Inuit been engaged in a commercial seal trade with Europeans for over a century now – a truth conveniently forgotten in the animal-rights lobby's portrayal of "traditional" Inuit seal-hunting as a non-commercial, subsistence activity only. Also absent from these critiques is a real understanding of what Canadian colonialism really looks like: That Indigenous food ways have been, at best, simply tolerated in Canada and, at worst, actively suppressed.

Food has been used as a major tool of Canadian colonialism. Whether it was the use of starvation to clear the way for the settlement of the prairies, the persistent hunger and malnutrition that defined the residential school experience for tens of thousands of children, or the banning of Indigenous methods of hunting and fishing as a means to reduce competition with settlers for those same resources, food has often acted as the sharp, deadly edge of Canadian colonial policy.

Animal rights activists seem willfully ignorant of Canada's long history of forced relocations of Inuit communities, of children taken from their families and placed in residential schools, of the slaughter of Inuit sled dogs by the RCMP, or of the mass removal of thousands of Inuit to southern TB hospitals where they were held for years at a time with little or no contact with their families.

That Indigenous food cultures have survived in the face of this onslaught from governments and animal rights activists alike is a testament to their beauty and resilience. And the fight by Kūkŭm Kitchen to celebrate seal and other Indigenous foods is, in many ways, an extension of the fight that Arnait (Inuit women) such as Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Aaju Peter and Tanya Tagaq have been waging for years now.

It's time that Canadians stop telling Indigenous peoples what's good for them – or for the animals that are at the heart of their cultural and spiritual lives – and actually start listening. Reconciliation without action is meaningless. A good place to start would be for Canadians to begin actively supporting the Inuit hunters, designers and craftspeople who make a living from and depend upon seal.

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