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Canada Doesn't Need A 'National Seal Products Day'

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(Photo: CP)

Occasionally a Private Members' Bill is introduced that is so immaterial, so irrelevant and inconsequential that it defies explanation or public interest. Bill S-208, An Act Respecting National Seal Products Day, appears to be such a bill.

Originally introduced by Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette, the self-proclaimed "godmother" of the sealing industry, the bill would designate May 20 as "National Seal Products Day" in Canada. The date was deliberately selected to coincide with Maritime Day in the European Union, with the intention of sending a political message to the EU which, in 2009, banned the import and trade of seal products other than those hunted by indigenous peoples.

But if the creators and supporters of this bill were doing this to get a reaction -- from the EU or elsewhere -- they appear to have failed miserably. No animal protection groups have made a peep about National Seal Products Day, though all are undoubtedly well aware of it. And while almost 2,000 people have signed a petition -- started in Newfoundland -- rejecting National Seal Products Day, Bill S-208 has passed from the Senate to House Committee with little attention.

National Seal Products Day will most likely be considered - should anyone outside of Ottawa actually pay attention to it - as an embarrassing joke.

Designating a national day to celebrate a product -- as opposed to recognizing an individual, group or cultural occasion -- seems strange. It is difficult to see how the East Coast seal "fishery" warrants a special day of its own when we already have National Hunting, Trapping and Fishing Heritage Day. If Parliamentarians wish to recognize the important role of seals in Inuit culture, designating a day to recognize Inuit culture and traditions would be far more appropriate.

Conflating the Inuit and East Coast seal hunt because they are both "sealing" is a mistake, akin to saying that angling and commercial trawling are both "fishing." They are two distinct types of hunts, conducted for different purposes, at different times of year, in different parts of Canada and for different species. While there is a commercial component to Inuit seal hunting (which no animal organization has ever campaigned against), the primary purpose of the Inuit hunt is for food.

The same cannot be said for the East Coast commercial hunt: a market-driven, mass slaughter of wildlife solely for their skins to make luxury products, with government statistics suggesting that 92 per cent of the potentially usable meat is wasted.

Bill sponsor MP Scott Simms claims that National Seal Products Day would help reinvigorate the sealing industry. But let's be realistic: hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for market research and development over the past 30 years has not resulted in a sustainable sealing industry.

canada seal hunters
A herd of seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, QC at the beginning of the annual seal hunting season. (Photo: Randy Risling/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The multimillion-dollar bailout loans to seal processors in Newfoundland have succeeded only in creating stockpiles of seal pelts that cannot be sold. The designation of a Fisheries Ambassador to travel the world and fight against seal products bans was an expensive failure. Events such as Seal Day on the Hill -- complete with fancy canapes and MPs tweeting selfies in a borrowed seal fur jackets -- have done nothing to help Inuit, who continue to rely on seal as a source of food and who now have exclusive access to many of the world's commercial markets for their products.

Should National Seal Products Day pass -- as it seems likely to do -- there is no doubt that animal protection organizations will take full advantage of the occasion to showcase video footage from recent commercial seal hunts, the one that occurs off the East Coast and is conducted primarily by non-aboriginal fishermen.

Images of seal pups barely three weeks of age crying and barking as they are hooked, alive and conscious, through the face with a steel boat hook and hauled onto a boat deck. Seals sliced open, breathing, waving their paw in agony from the bottom of a skiff. Not to mention the countless animals shot and left to suffer, only to slip away to their slow lingering deaths from their injuries beneath the ice.

Inuit seal hunters and East Coast fishermen do not need statements or symbolism; they need action and alternatives.

Aside from politicians who will undoubtedly come to question the wisdom behind a day that requires a symbolic donning of heavy seal fur garments on a warm day in late May, Canadians are no more likely to support the seal hunt on National Seal Products Day than they are to give away their money on National Philanthropy Day (November 15).

Maritime Day in the EU appears to be a professional, sophisticated occasion, with analyses and discussions on maritime policy, fostering innovation, and sustainability. That Canada's proposed equivalent focuses on clubbing the skulls of baby seals is absurd and will only reinforce the image of Atlantic Canada as a backwater. Indeed, National Seal Products Day will most likely be considered -- should anyone outside of Ottawa actually pay attention to it -- as an embarrassing joke, complete with tired quips about a baby harp seal walking into a bar and asking for "anything but a Canadian Club."

The comment was made several times during debate that National Seal Products Day "makes a statement, not a holiday." But statements will do precious little to benefit Inuit sealers who could use real and tangible assistance in accessing the markets for products from their full-use seal hunt. They also fail to provide viable alternatives for fishermen in Atlantic Canada, for whom the sealing industry is a dangerous, short-term, seasonal activity that continues to rely on government financial support.

Inuit seal hunters and East Coast fishermen do not need statements or symbolism; they need action and alternatives.

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