An Animal Liberationist Perspective on #Sealfie and the Inuit Seal Hunt

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Revisited

Originally titled – “Shadowboxing: An Animal Liberationist Perspective on the Conservative Administration, The Commercial Seal Hunt, and #InuitCounterProtest” 

I wrote this back in early 2013. Hosted on a site that is now dead, I wanted to repost it here and then also provide some updated commentary as this conflict has come public again.

I wasn’t sure how this would be received when I wrote it, but surprisingly it was reprinted in the Resistance Ecology Journal, and also inspired a CBC North interview on the subject. Although it wasn’t ignored, the goals and demands set out for animal advocacy organizations to consult directly with folks in the North has been. A year later and multi national advocacy groups are still talking over Inuit people and making their concerns invisible. Mainstream (not vegan) millionaire celebrities like Ellen Degeneres have recently stoked that fire, and people are responding in kind with a grassroots social media #sealfie campaign that highlights traditional use as well as food prices in the North which the vast majority in the rest of North America are not be able to comprehend.

Since writing this I also wrote “Veganism in the Occupied Territories: Anti Colonialism and Animal Liberation.” That resource was meant to understand the way animal advocates frame Onkwehon:we and Inuit as incapable or immoral – two lenses that ignore their lived experiences, relationship with the land, and fundamental integrity and dignity. Both are meant as pretext for assimilation – including assimilation into our food systems. With this framework my position on this issue has shifted over the last year further than I would have imagined. Inuit folks are making decisions based upon what they believe to be the best interests for their community and the land. As their role in the global commercial trade centres on bottom of the industry – they recognize that a collapse of the top will crush them as well. They do not own or control distribution markets or see benefit of fashion mark ups and without them their pelts will lose the structure needed to make market. Furthermore, they realize that a collapse of this industry will only heighten food insecurity, decrease autonomy and make way for more aggressive resource extraction, which I believe will have an even more negative impact on wild animals in the North – including endangered species.

In settler society the invisibility of industrialization and techno-capitalism allow for people to believe that simply by not consuming or wearing other animal species that they do not contribute to the death of other animals. The environment and structure of the North does not allow for this fantasy.

If animal advocates want to see the best long term solution, that has the least amount of negative impacts for Inuit communities and wild animals in the North, they are going to have to understand the issue on these terms and speak to those communities directly. The death threats clearly visible on social media coming from animal advocates to folks in Northern communities, or to folks who support their concerns, is a clear indication of how far we need to go and how important it is for everyone who considers themselves an advocate for other animal species to fucking stand up and let others know that that shit is not in your name. Aside from being overtly racist it has absolutely no positive impact on other animals.

Although I can chart how my position has moved over the last year I still hold to the idea that these conflicts are created by and serve destructive interests – either the self serving interests of the Canadian State, or the self serving interests of settlers who use animal advocacy as a weapon to enact assimilation. The common ground is there though, it is visible, and it will continue to be visible for folks who make the effort to see it.

“Shadowboxing: An Animal Liberationist Perspective on the Conservative Administration, The Commercial Seal Hunt, and #InuitCounterProtest” 

Summary

What I put forward below is my sincere belief that the Conservative administration is using the Seal Hunt as manufactured wedge between Inuit communities and Animal Rights activists. What follows is an animal liberationist perspective – a perspective grounded in the knowledge that the liberation of other animal species from human society cannot be achieved in isolation of other forms of oppression, power and domination. Shadowboxing has a dual meaning here – in the the Conservative Administration is pretending to fight on behalf of Inuit communities and as such pitting Inuit communities vs. Animal Rights activists in a fight where no such opponent exists. It is my hope that this will provide a critical counter to the intentions and motivations of Conservative Administration, lead to direct consultation on the issue between communities and foster a demand for critical understanding of treaty rights, hunting rights, whiteness and settler colonialism within the animal rights movement.

Background

Before I get into the heart of the issue I want to steal something from a friend who I saw talk recently. That talk was about revolution, and specifically, revolution before our countries become “revolt proof” through hyper technological forms of surveillance and repression. Before he got into that talk he gave a background on the his own experience with state repression, his experience in prisons and his organizing. The thinking was that if people are going to speak on serious topics, topics as serious as revolution, then they need to at least be upfront about what gives them the legitimacy to speak on that issue. 

   

I grew up on the Haldimand Tract, in Dunnville, On (Port Maitland to be more specific). I grew up in a family that had generations of business relationships and friendships with Haudenosaunee of the Grand River folks (Six Nations). My grandfather would sell fish and trade in hunted animals with friends on the reserve and this relationship was carried on by my father. In both instances it drew ire from other local business leaders and settler community members. My fathers small business has proudly flown the Unity flag, hired consistently from the Reserve and done so even in the face of serious business consequences. In turn, the relationships he has developed have been there when called on to help mitigate and stop property disputes, illegal development and counter attempts by the Canadian Government to tax my father’s waterfront business (he runs a small shipyard). I was raised with the knowledge that I am a settler, that I am obligated to respect the Haudenosaunee, to respect treaty rights if I am to share this land and also that I am to do this not just when convenient.

As I got older I began to act on these issues locally by organizing film screenings of the documentary Six Miles Deep – a chronicle of the reclamation of Douglas Creek Estates, now known as Kanonhstaton “The Protected Place.” I screened the film numerous times in Dunnville – which is in the Six Miles area that was granted to the Haudenosaunee. I was not connected to an academic institution, or union, or even solidarity group or collective. I did this, along with another local friend Eric Smith, because we realized our position on stolen land. A while longer after these screenings Eric and I both got involved in solidarity organizing at Kanonhstaton, through the more established solidarity networks. Since that time I have been involved in organizing the April 28th Coalition march, doing court support and fundraising for Haudenosaunee Land Defenders, organizing speaking events for Haudenosaunee activists, organizing marches, answering the call out for allies as much as possible at bridge closures, school supply demos and work site shut downs and also tried to do what I can to provide direct support for folks like providing transport for folks back and forth across the Border. I don’t mention these things to gain credit, or because I feel like I should be complemented, but to hopefully illustrate that I am drawn to these issues not as an academic drive by ethnographer, or as some passing activist fad, but out of a life long commitment to recognizing my position as a settler and my obligation to honouring the Guswenta (Two Row Wampum).  I also do not want to convey that these communities are homogeneous – they are not. Solidarity organizing will look radically different within each community, and obligations to enter a relationship will be different. I have not organized directly, or indirectly, with Inuit folks in Northern communities affected by the seal hunt. I give this background to hopefully illustrate that if I err I am earnest in trying to understand treaty rights, respect autonomy and sovereignty. I take these issues extremely seriously. 

    

Aside from this organizing, my primary organizing has been in the animal and earth liberation movements. Aside from my experiences I have spent a good amount of time trying to learn the history of those movements. I know that these are movements that are largely acritical of whiteness, privilege, and devoid of a larger critique of power and domination. I know that many experiences that folks have had with members of my community have not been positive. In doing solidarity organizing I have made bringing these issues into these movements a priority – physically bringing vegans and animal liberationists to Kanonhstaton, site shut downs, the Cayuga Courthouse, and bringing Haudenosaunee folks up to this community to do speaking events and shows. I do not particularly enjoy online writing, but I have tried my best in those situations to chart a new course as well and have always tried to use the Guswenta as a guide. Many of the animal liberation folks in my community have a synthetic felt Guswenta sewed onto their jackets and through this organizing my community in Niagara has developed a reputation for having a broad based critique of power and domination and also for walking the talk.

When #IdleNoMore took off we called on animal liberationists to support; when the local Sun Media paper tried to create a settler panic in response to a traditional Haudenosaunee hunt we responded with a statement and marched a Giant Two Row through the largest downtown in the Niagara Region.

The relationships have not been without a share of blowback – everything from dismissive settler allies (settler leftists who are uncomfortable and incapable of understanding of other animals as living, breathing, sentient creatures), to folks on all sides falsely assuming we are “pro-life” or that we will betray them whenever an issue concerning animal use arises. Solidarity is built over the span of decades, and destroyed and built anew each and every night. We recognize this.

Correcting the past behaviors and mistakes of a movement with no critique of settler colonialism, erasure, and genocide, is not going to happen overnight but through acknowledging the land we are on and working in solidarity as a condition of our participation in as allies to other animal species also on this land.

We have experienced something extremely powerful in both communities finding common ground. Many Onkwehonwe communities have a traditional critique of capitalism and the commodification of other animals species (or nations). “All our relations.” Where many vegans and “animal rights” activists focus on domesticated farmed animals, many Onkwehonwe communities have a much stronger critique of habitat destruction and the real drivers for the destruction of animals and wildlife. There is immense power in these communities understanding the specificity of each issue – and also the ways in which these issues intersect (more on that later).



The Conservative Agenda    

 The Conservative Administration has been long focused on a strategy of leveraging the well-being of Inuit hunting communities in response to the European Union Commercial Seal Hunt Ban. Since the passing off the ban in 2010, the Conservative Government and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have presented Inuit Hunters as a face for the issue, even though the EU ban makes an exemption for traditional Inuit hunting as well as commercial Inuit use. Inuit hunters themselves represent 3% of the seal hunt market, and similar to other “resource extraction” that percentage is largely at the kill level – far removed from the mark-up and profit of industries farther along the product chain.

The Conservatives have spent large sums of money attempting to introduce seal meat (for the first time) into the Chinese market, fighting the EU ban at the WTO, monitoring seal hunt opposition, as well as using advertising and online disruption. These strategies have also been used by this administration to disrupt opposition to the Tar Sands, and for example by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to do damage control for his retrograde immigration policies. In this instance, the Conservatives have been more successful in their strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ – presenting the Inuit Hunt (which is not banned) as the face of the issue and pitting Inuit vs. “Animal Rights” activists. This was highlighted when earlier this week the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) – which supports the EU ban, cancelled their “International Day of Action for Seals” event when an #InuitCounterProtest event was organized. The March 16 event, which was to be held on what is typically the International Day of Action for Seals, was intended to be a family-friendly event in celebration of seals and to show support for the citizens of the European Union and their ban on the sale of commercial seal products and the Atlantic settler commercial industry. IFAW organized and intended it to be a peaceful and positive show of support – not a protest. However, this planned “counter-protest” was intended, by its very nature, to be confrontational.

I have also witnessed intense blowback against animal rights activists on social media and on list-serves. This blowback has conflated opposition to the Commercial Settler Atlantic Seal Trade with opposition to Inuit traditions.  What is missing is that animal rights organizations involved in opposing the Commerical Settler Atlantic Seal Trade purposefully do not target or focus or criticize the Inuit Hunt and treaty rights.  When pressed, all of the folks pushing the blowback are either incapable of providing examples, relate back to the overall inability of the animal rights movement to broadly respect treaty rights, or simply ignore the request.

One particular list serve email called the anti-sealing movement a “purely colonial enterprise” and went on to list numerous instances where the Canadian state has used other animal species as a way to inflict damage on Inuit communities. It is completely lost on this person, and many others, that the Conservative administration is, at best, leveraging Inuit communities to shield and support the settler hunt, and at the worst purely posturing and shadowboxing – pretending to fight hard on the issue for political capital and using AR communities as a scapegoat to wedge.

The United States banned Commercial Seal Hunt products back in 1972. Many countries have enacted bans since. The Conservative administration, and many others, have seen the writing on the wall on this issue for some time. The commercial seal hunt is in collapse. The EU ban, if fought and won at the WTO, will be brought forward again with language that will pass any legal challenge. Also, there is no proposed new golden market in China. The Conservative Government has knowingly misrepresented this industry to communities in order to extract political capital – electoral votes on the East Coast and leverage in Northern Communities. Their shadowboxing allowed them to gain this political capital – while focusing the fall out and backlash on the collapse on animal rights activists and organizations. They have known, for at least three years at this point, that this industry’s demand has dried up completely.

They have done nothing substantive to transition or ensure alternative economic options for folks on the East Coast, or for Inuit communities in the North. With all of the development projects currently slated for the resource rich North, the collapse on the Inuit seal hunt industry is political gold for the Conservatives. If they can collapse the economy, pit traditional communities against environmentalists and animal rights activists, and walk away looking like the good guy they have pulled off a major political victory. With the latest flare up, these interests are using the power of #idlenomore to push the issue – playing off of the grassroots groundswell and the historic inability of these communities and movements to find a solid coalition politic.

Four main lies uphold this work 1) that the AR movement and groups like IFAW do or have ever campaigned against Inuit hunts for seals 2) that the EU seal ban is an attack on Inuit traditional way of life 3) that if Inuit folks fight hard enough against these groups the market will return, and that 4) the Conservatives are doing “everything they can” to ensure the long term economic sustainability of Northern and Atlantic communities. That so many solid and critical folks on the left have accepted these lies and acritically adopted the Conservative administration strategy is terrifying and has extreme long term implications for two communities who need to work together.

A Coalition Politic

More work needs to be done, at a rapid pace, in animal advocacy at the global and grassroots level to understand treaty rights, settler colonialism, and how whiteness and privilege surround issues of animal use. I am committed to this work no matter how the successful the Conservatives are at pitting these communities against each other. More work also needs to happen in regards to direct consultation. These groups need to be talking to each other directly, not through the Conservative administration, the press or social media. It is not enough for AR groups to merely point out that their position and that the position of these bans makes explicit exception for the Inuit Hunt.

Members of those Inuit communities understand the importance of the Hunt on their local economy and do not trust the intentions of an animal rights movement that they have felt to be at best unresponsive and at worst overtly racist. However, it will be impossible to stop the Conservative administration from wedging this issue if we don’t build relationships. The long term implications of an outright split could be disastrous to confronting large scale resource extraction in the North and transition for Northern (and even Atlantic Settler) communities dealing with the fall-out from the commercial seal hunt collapse.

As the larger #idlenomore movement makes this issue a focus, the wedge is driven further between communities who should be organizing together against environmental racism, factory farms, pollution, habitat destruction, capitalism and more.

A similar process is playing out right now in the migrant justice community as the Kenney administration is pitting the labour movement against the migrant worker community and elements of the Canadian labour movement are taking the bait. It should come as no surprise that the Conservative administration intends to create wedges to isolate and focus different social justice communities against each other. We should be highly critical and suspicious when our own organizing matches their policies and objectives. Are we to really believe that the Conservative administration takes Inuit treaty and hunting rights seriously? If we don’t at least ask that question we are walking down a very dangerous path.



If anyone would like to discuss this further please don’t hesitate to contact at dylanjamespowell@gmail.com

@dylanxpowell / dylanjamespowell@gmail.com

 

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5 responses to “An Animal Liberationist Perspective on #Sealfie and the Inuit Seal Hunt

  1. Dylan, thanks for your post on the seal hunt. I have been trying to sort out what is going on with this and your perspective is really helpful. I have always been horrified by the settler hunt because it seems like just more senseless & disrespectful pillage of the earth. But I’ve been puzzled by the reaction among Indigenous folks I follow on FB because I didn’t think Indigenous seal hunts were targeted by the Ban and other actions. I have never had issue with Inuit hunts as I always assumed Inuit have a relationship with seals, whales and life in general that was their sovereign business. But now I think I get a bit what is going on. It makes so much sense that the Conservatives are manipulating this issue to create divisiveness and that the economics of the hunts are more complicated than at first glance. I also didn’t understand that there had been no direct communication between Indigenous hunters and AR groups working on this issue, though if I had thought about it more carefully, I could have figured that out. It’s an old story we settlers seem to keep repeating. Thanks again.

    Karen
    Vermont
    unceded Abenaki Territory

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