Updated: Canadian Inuit blast ruling on continued EU seal ban as ‘morally reprehensible’

Inuit hunters set up seal nets under the ice near the community of Clyde River in Canada's eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. (Levon Sevunts / Radio Canada International)
Inuit hunters set up seal nets under the ice near the community of Clyde River in Canada’s eastern Arctic territory of Nunavut. (Levon Sevunts / Radio Canada International)
The leader of Canada’s national Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), denounced Thursday’s WTO ruling upholding an EU ban on Canadian seal products.

“I am morally outraged at the self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness of the EU’s claim to protect the morals of its citizens,” said ITK president Terry Audla in a news release.

Terry Audla, president of ITK, Canada's national Inuit organization. (ITK)
Terry Audla, president of ITK, Canada’s national Inuit organization. (ITK)

“Inuit live according to the principles of fairness and compassion and we seek nothing more than to feed our families and make an honest living in the modern economy. It is morally reprehensible for anyone to impede those goals – which are the basic rights of any citizen of the world.”

A World Trade Organization panel ruled in November 2013 that while the EU seal ban did undermine fair trade, it could be justified moral grounds for animal welfare.

In January 2014, Norway and Canada appealed.

‘Based on politics not science’

Although the WTO’s Appellate Body overturned some aspects of the 2013 ruling on Thursday, it upheld the panel’s general finding that the “EU Seal Regime” is “necessary to protect public morals.”

Environment Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq is Canada's minister for the Arctic Council. (The Canadian Press)
Environment Minister and Nunavut MP Leona Aglukkaq is Canada’s minister for the Arctic Council. (The Canadian Press)

A statement from the Canadian government on behalf of Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade,  Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, and  Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council, said the decision confirms that the EU decision was a political one with “no basis in fact or science.”

“Today’s decision by the WTO Appellate Body confirms what we have said all along, namely that the EU’s seal regime is arbitrarily and unjustifiably applied and is therefore inconsistent with the EU’s obligations,” the statement said.

“The WTO Appellate Body confirmed that the EU measure violates its international obligations and has ordered the EU to bring itself into compliance. We are currently reviewing the practical impact of the decision on the Atlantic and northern seal harvests.”

Wildlife advocates praise ruling

Earlier in the day, animal rights groups praised the decision.

“This decision confirms that global markets for products of commercial seal hunts are closed and commercial sealing has no future,” said the Humane Society International/Canada, an animal protection organization, in a statement on Thursday.

“It is time the Canadian government stops wasting taxpayers dollars on a futile battle to preserve this cruel and outdated slaughter.”

Ban’s effect on Arctic indigenous peoples

The European Parliament passed the bill to ban the importation of seal products in 2009 after a campaign by animal welfare activists against the commercial seal hunt.

Though indigenous people in the Arctic are exempt from the ban, the law has effectively killed the market for seal products.

This has had a major economic and social impact for Inuit, Sami and other Arctic indigenous communities.

To read the World Trade Organization’s decision, click here

In a 2012 Eye on the Arctic interview, Leif Fontaine, the president of Greenland’s Association of Fishers  and Hunters,  said the destruction of the sealskin market threatened “seriously our identity and existence of Greenland’s 60 small settlements.”

And in an interview with Radio Sweden, Sámi handicraft seamstress Lise Tapio Pittja highlighted the despair the ban had caused indigenous people throughout the Arctic.

“People think it is not possible to get hold of sealskin clothes or other seal products now,” she said. “People in general now feel that the ban prevents one placing an order.”

“I understand that animals must not be tortured or even hurt, and must live free and happy lives. But I would like to invite vegans to take part in a working day at minus 37 degrees, in clothes not made of skins or fur. They would not survive very long.”

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)cbc.ca

Related stories from around the Arctic:

Canada:  Seal ban omitted from Canada-EU trade talks, CBC News

Greenland: What the EU seal ban has meant for Inuit communities in the Arctic, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden:  European sealskin ban affects Sámi handicraft workers, Radio Sweden

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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