Inuit activists found themselves in a Twitter feud this month. Only it was not with alt-right trolls but white progressives, and it was not the first time.
"This is the same demographic that would tend to care about people like my family and my community, and I think they do. But they've been swindled basically," says Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, the Iqaluit filmmaker behind the eye-opening National Film Board documentary "Angry Inuk" about the Inuit seal hunt and the decades-old conflict with southern animal rights and environmental groups.
"When organizations spend hundreds of millions of dollars conveying a certain message then you can't expect the average Joe to know otherwise," she says. "You're just going to have way more people believe that message over the voice of the Inuit, a people you very rarely hear from."
But it's not just the average Joe or Jane, either. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May voted against a bill to designate a day to promote the seal hunt.
Bill S-208, National Seal Products Day passed its first reading in the House of Commons on Nov. 2, according to Nunatsiaq News.
Yvonne Jones, an Inuk MP for Labrador, described the bill as as “an opportunity for us to reflect upon the seal, the cultural use of the seal, the sustainability of the seal in our lives, and how it maintains its strength for Canadians as a source of food, as a source for crafts, as a source of economic sustainability in many regions across the country."
(Photo: Qajaaq Ellsworth)
During the Oct. 27 debate, Jones added: "I watched many times, as a young girl, as my father, my uncles, and my brothers all fought those great protestors who thought they were barbarians, that they were less than everyone else in the country because they were trying to provide for their family in a very sustainable way."
"This is the same demographic that would tend to care about people like my family and my community, and I think they do. But they've been swindled basically."
That's the cultural context for why May's post-vote Twitter complaint did not sit well with Tanya Tagaq, the Inuk throat singer who made waves in 2014 when, upon winning the Polaris Music Prize, she announced to the gathered media: "Fuck PETA."
The controversial animal rights organization responded in the most condescending way possible: "Tanya should stop posing her baby with a dead seal and read more," referencing Tagaq's "sealfie" photo posted as part of an online pro-sealing protest.
Tagaq, who most certainly did not need to "read more" to know about an issue central to her Inuk identity, has not since softened her opinion on anti-sealing opponents.
"It's disheartening to know that misinformation is so widely spread. Seals are our cows @ElizabethMay. Are you opposed to leather?" She tweeted to May the day after the seal hunt day bill passed its first reading.
While Tagaq kept peppering the party leader with questions ("why assume that the indigenous people that live with the animals are misinformed Elizabeth? We are not stupid/evil") May dismissed the bill as "pandering" and then boasted of two other MPs joining her.
Tagaq was not having it.
Not surprisingly, further down May's feed more people began to pile on.
Animal rights activist Diana Skakavac responded that we "might as well call it 'clubbing baby seals day'. Who thinks of this crap? Trudeau?"
"They just keep doing what they're doing with full knowledge of the kind of devastation they've been causing in the Arctic."
The same sentiment was echoed by Bridget Curran, director and spokesperson of Atlantic Canadian Anti-Sealing Coalition, who tweeted "National day to celebrate products derived from beating seal pups to death is obscene. Cringeworthy day for Canadians."
When someone brought up the Inuit, Curran replied that she wasn't talking about the Inuit.
"If u think Govt has Inuit in mind for the new 'holiday' you're deluded." When that person suggested "if you take the time to look through the responses to @ElizabethMay post you will see Inuit people taking exception to it," Curran simply stopped replying.
"They know damn well what they're doing," says Arnaquq-Baril, referring to the leadership of organizations that campaign against the seal hunt and use it for fundraising.
"They've been confronted in the past by Inuit, they've been shown the numbers. And they just keep doing what they're doing with full knowledge of the kind of devastation they've been causing in the Arctic.
"I think they've been duping their own low-level staff and the public that donates to them for a very long time. I think it's just a matter of time before people see that."
For those who have not followed the seal debate in recent years, this entire exchange may seem strange.
After all, most in southern Canada were raised thinking that fur was something worn only by people like Cruella De Vil as a result of an anti-fur movement that grew out of the 1970s anti-sealing campaigns by groups like Greenpeace Canada and supported by celebrities like Brigitte Bardot.
We've all seen the adorable photos of white harp seals and react understandably at the thought of them being clubbed. But here's the thing: it's been illegal in Canada to kill baby whitecoat seals since 1987, and they were never hunted by Canadian Inuit in the first place.
They hunt mostly ringed seals and while Inuit from Greenland do hunt harp seals, they're adults by the time they migrate that far north.
But as we just saw on Twitter, there appears to be a vast gulf between the southern animal rights activists and the northern indigenous people.
"There were all these factors that already oppressed the population so when anti-sealing came along and the hunters couldn't even feed their families anymore, the suicide rate skyrocketed."
To wit, the victory that organizations like the International Fund For Animal Welfare celebrated in 1982 when Europe banned whitecoat sealskins is known up north as The Great Depression.
"There are so many emotional stories from people remembering the devastation of that time, the humiliation, the suicides," says Arnaquq-Baril, who heard many while making the film.
"People were already under so much pressure, under assault from the government basically — colonization was happening to us much later than the rest of the indigenous Canadian population, and we were right in the middle of that complete upheaval of people being sent away to schools or forced into federal day schools in the communities," she says.
"The dog teams being shot. We weren't allowed to speak Inuktitut in school because they'd get their mouth washed out with soap."
"There were all these factors that already oppressed the population so when anti-sealing came along and the hunters couldn't even feed their families anymore, the suicide rate skyrocketed," she says.
"You can see the graph of the suicide rates and it was already climbing severely but you can see the spike in '83 when the European Union banned whitecoat harp seal pup skins — which is not what we hunt but the whole market crashed."
Though not the target, the Inuit were collateral damage. Between 1982 and 1983, when the ban went into effect, the average income of an Inuit seal hunter in Resolute Bay fell to $1,000 from $54,000.
Former cabinet minister David Kilgour wrote that in the Northwest Territories and northern Québec, the number of seal pelts sold dropped to 8,000 in 1983-1984 from 44,000 in 1980-1981. The pelts' value dropped 92 per cent in that time.
The territory estimated that nearly 18 of 20 Inuit villages lost 60 per cent of their community's yearly income, a loss that affected 1,500 Inuit hunters and their families.
"Between 1982 and 1983, the average income of an Inuit seal hunter in Resolute Bay fell from $54,000 to $1000."
"In general, native trappers find themselves incapable of conducting the high-profile campaigns necessary to counter the crusades launched by well-financed and professionally-organized animal rights movements," Kilgour wrote.
Life there has never been the same.
Arnaquq-Baril says that the money earned from commercial sales of sealskin products had gone to subsidize the hunt itself as the seal meat went into "community freezers."
"A lot of Inuit still don't like to sell meat, they like to share it for free. So the only way they can make an income is on the skins," she says. "I think we're punished for our generosity as a people. Animal groups use that culture of sharing against us to kind of deny our existence on the commercial market."
The reason why Inuit initially needed to join the commercial sealing market is one of those horrific parts of Canadian history that we rarely learn about.
"We were herded into communities throughout the 1950s and '60s in various ways. Sometimes it was the RCMP shooting sled dogs so the families lost their transportation and ability to live totally full time in a self-sufficient way on the land," Arnaquq-Baril says.
People began to depend on snowmobiles, so they needed fuel unlike with sled dogs which ate seal meat, she said. That's why the sealskin market became so important — it let the Inuit hold on to some small piece of their traditional lifestyle.
The sled dog slaughter remains a painful issue.
While the Quebec government admitted its own role in the killing of Inuit dogs without consent on the northern part of the province, and doled out $3 million in compensation, the federal government has not admitted culpability. In fact, the RCMP cleared itself of all wrongdoing in 2005, claiming it destroyed the dogs for public health and safety reasons.
CBC reports that as many as 20,000 sled dogs were alleged to have been killed in what is now Nunavut as well as northern Quebec and Labrador, a figure that the RCMP also denied.
Arnaquq-Baril says people like her grandparents, who once roamed the southern tip of Baffin Island, lost their traditional lifestyle because "[the federal government] wanted Inuit living in sedentary communities, they didn't want us to be semi-nomadic anymore, so that we can be more easily administered."
"We were herded into communities throughout the 1950s and '60s in various ways. Sometimes it was the RCMP shooting sled dogs so the families lost their transportation and ability to live totally full time in a self-sufficient way on the land."
While the Qikiqtani Truth Commission's report in 2010 found no evidence of an assimilation conspiracy, it did acknowledge that "those who lost their sled dogs lost their traditional hunting-based livelihoods, becoming dependent on welfare and store-bought food."
To the Inuit, the result is the same.
"With that change in the '50s and' 60s Inuit lost a lot of independence and became very dependent on the sealskin market and international trade in sealskins. And then a short decade later the anti-seal hunt campaigns began," she says.
"So it was kind of one assault after another."
And ironically, given May's environmentalism, Arnaquq-Baril points out that the seal hunt "is still one of the very few economies we have that doesn't require destroying the environment we live in and therefore the food that we depend on."
A few years before making the film, Arnaquq-Baril had a beef with another southern progressive — Ellen DeGeneres.
Remember when the beloved talk-show host helmed the Oscars in 2014 and took that celeb selfie? Well, after breaking retweet records, it resulted in a $3 million (U.S.) donation, half of which went to the Humane Society, which opposes the seal hunt.
Arnaquq-Baril and her Inuit compatriots, inspired by a YouTube video by a 17-year-old Inuit girl telling Ellen about her "super cute" sealskin boots, responded with the #Sealfie, posting photos of themselves and their families wearing sealskin products.
"They raised and spent an enormous amount of money conveying their perspective and really I think the advent of social media and the Internet has levelled the playing field a little bit more, it's not level but it's giving people like me access to the rest of the world," she says.
There were many posts but it was was Tagaq's photo of her baby daughter beside a freshly killed seal that went viral as did the anger from animal activists.
"Tanya Tagaq was the very public face of it, and she bore the brunt of the worst comments."
"I have a really hard time gauging how successful it was," she recalls.
"Tanya Tagaq was the very public face of it, and she bore the brunt of the worst comments. But I definitely got my share of them, too, because I was on Twitter and Facebook night after night after night dealing with these comments and trying to get Humane Society and Greenpeace and IFAW and all those organizations to respond to me. Every time I would tweet to them, their supporters would just swarm me."
"Certainly, the media paid more attention to Inuit as commercial sealers than they had in many, many years so I think overall that was a good thing. But I still at moments feel some guilt over promoting that campaign so hard because I know if I was getting those comments a lot of other people were too," she says.
"We already struggle with mental health issues in the north. There's a lot of trauma there already, and I just hate to think I might have made it easier for that kind of vitriol to reach Inuit ears."
At the time, the Humane Society reached out to The Huffington Post Canada to assert that they didn't oppose the Inuit subsistence hunt, even though there was at the time nothing on their website stating that. They released an policy clarification but it still maintains an official position made sure to mention that the "Inuit subsistence sealing has long been used to defend the commercial slaughter."
The thing is, Arnaquq-Baril and other Inuit don't want to be just allowed a subsistence hunt. They want to make money from one of the only resources they have in a region where orange juice can cost $26 and a cabbage might run you $28.
"Most of the activists that work for these animal groups live in cities [but] we have different food sources. For Inuit, the seals are still a staple food but we also need to make an income so we can pay rent," she says.
"I think it's really discriminatory to ask one people to live by a different set of standards than you live with. So if Ontarians are allowed to farm and raise cows and chickens and eat them as well as sell their products why shouldn't Inuit be able to do that with our local animals?"
She says that when a group says they're only opposed to commercial sealing, they make a false distinction because she believes most commercial sealers are actually Inuit.
"But they they try to play it like commercial sealing doesn't involve Inuit," she says.
Though animal rights organizations peg Inuit sealers as only three per cent of the total, Arnaquq-Baril says that's because the focus is only on the southern seal hunt in Newfoundland, which is predominantly non-indigenous, while Inuit hunters don't need to register with the Department of Oceans and Fisheries so those numbers are officially unknown.
She says that even if you were to just look at the Inuit of Greenland, they have between 2,000 and 3,000 indigenous commercial sealers whereas there are only a few hundred non-indigenous sealers in Newfoundland and Quebec left.
"If Ontarians are allowed to farm and raise cows and chickens and eat them as well as sell their products why shouldn't Inuit be able to do that with our local animals?"
"Even without Canadian Inuit we still are the majority of commercial sealers in the world."
Not only that, but the Inuit exemptions have done nothing to help. While a 2009 European Union import ban on seal products exempted Greenlanders and their traditionally-hunted seal skins, it still reduced exports by another 90 per cent.
"It’s not so much that we are limiting the possibilities for the Inuit in Greenland to export seal products to the EU because they can," Hans Stielstra, head of international environmental issues at the European commission, told the Guardian last year. "Their problem is that the general ban has destroyed the market in the EU. "
Arnaquq-Baril is hoping her film also changes to counter the anti-sealing campaigns that have become conventional wisdom in the south to the detriment of Inuit around the Arctic Circle. In one scene, she filmed a group of Inuit political science students who travelled from Ottawa to Brussels, Belgium to convince members of the European parliament.
"At the bare minimum we ask that you educate your people [about] the propaganda that the animal rights groups are spreading," testified Cecile Lyall. "All we really ask is economic equality and, to achieve that, we have to stop the cultural prejudice that is imposed on us by not being allowed to benefit from our natural surroundings without having to drill into the ground.
"That's all we want as a people."
"Angry Inuk" is certainly the film to do it. After opening the ImagineNATIVE film festival, following an award-winning premiere earlier in the year at Hot Docs film fest, this spectacular piece of work is touring the country from B.C. to P.E.I. to the Yukon.
The landscape it captures is, of course, breathtaking. As is the realization that Inuit have been able to survive quite capably in such inhospitable conditions for millennia. Its matter-of-fact approach also puts into perspective what we in the south, protected from industrial farming and slaughterhouses, might consider brutal. Turns out a baby with a mouth covered in blood from eating raw seal is still pretty adorable
"Angry Inuk" also speaks up for a population that is too rarely heard, and gets mad for a community that is often reserved.
Many Inuit are still hesitant to get openly angry, Arnaquq-Baril says.
"So what I want people to understand is that when we say we're upset about something, when we say the situation is unacceptable, people really need to listen carefully. They need to listen hard," she says.
"Because for us to stand up to dominant society and demand to be heard on something that's the equivalent of someone in the south throwing bombs and stopping trains. I think we suffer for that trait we have in our culture right now."
But that is changing. Inuit are standing up at Muskrat Falls to defend themselves from a dam project that could give them methylmercury poisoning and they are standing up for the right to sell their traditional sealskin products without being shamed by southern activists.
"It's a simplistic messaging from the groups for so long saying things like fur is bad, fur is evil. There's just no nuance to these campaigns. It's all evil all the time for anything animal-related," she says.
"My friend had red paint thrown on him, a hunter, it was a vest that his grandmother had made for him out of the first seal he ever caught and animal activists threw paint on him. So it's not just against southern sealers. We're definitely directly affected,” she says.
But even if they're not nuanced, Arnaquq-Baril is. She says that she respects the perspective of vegans and recognizes the good work that conservationists did when non-indigenous hunters were over-sealing and believes in regulation.
"Many hunters, even in the south of Canada, have expressed gratitude that conservationists came out at that time and asked for regulation. They were never endangered but they were in decline," she says, but adds that now it’s time for the animal rights organizations to look past the fundraising boon and work with the Inuit.
"I really think the idea of anti-sealing, its days are numbered because you see the poorest people in North America being vilified or erased out of history. We scream and yell that we're part of a commercial market and nobody's been hearing us. But that won't be able to continue because we're on Facebook, we're on Twitter, we've got a movie now."
And it's starting to work. In 2014 Greenpeace made an official apology to the Inuit.
"We acknowledge the role we played in the unforeseen consequences of these bans; in 1985, we issued an apology for our role in this, but now we must go further.
Like the corporations we campaign against, we too must be open to change. Open to examining ourselves, our history, and the impact our campaigns have had, and to constantly reassessing ourselves — not just by apologizing, but by humbly making amends and changing the way we work.
"Animal rights and environmental activists need to empower the guardians."
And we have a responsibility — not just as an organization that once campaigned against the commercial hunt, but also as conscious, socially responsible human beings — to right wrongs, to actively stop the spread of misinformation, and to decolonize our thinking, our language, and our approach."
Now Arnaquq-Baril is hoping that, just like in the 1970s, other organizations will follow Greenpeace's lead.
While she had no luck with the Humane Society or IFAW, stuck to their subsistence argument and opposition to selling sealskin products, with the latter group comparing it to elephant tusks or animal horns.
However, Arnaquq-Baril did reach a former IFAW staffer who said, via Skype, that she's become convinced these organizations aren't really interested in ending the Canadian seal hunt "because it brings in millions of dollars," and then apologized for her own role.
"They need to look at who the guardians really are," Arnaquq-Baril concludes. "If you look closely, if you're on the ground in the communities and on the water where these animals actually live, you'll see that the people who are there fighting for the survival of the entire ecosystem are the hunters.
"Animal rights and environmental activists need to empower the guardians."
Upcoming Screening Dates For "Angry Inuk"
- Mawi'Omi Centre, Charlottetown, PEI, Nov. 20
- Astro Theatre, Iqaluit, Nunavut, Nov. 24
- ReFrame Peterborough International Film Festival, Peterborough, Ont., Jan. 27-29, 2017
- Docs on Bay, Thunder Bay, Ont., Feb 2, 2017
- World Community Film Festival, Courtenay, B.C., Feb. 3-5, 2017
- Available Light Film Festival. Whitehorse, Feb. 5, 2017
- Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage, Alaska, Feb. 17-18, 2017
- Mispon festival, RPL Theatre, Regina, date not yet determined
- Downtown Doc Festival, Belleville, Ont., March 5