Liberal Senator Mac Harb (Photo: THE MARK)

Today history was made in Ottawa.  Liberal Senator Mac Harb’s private member bill calling for the end of Canada’s commercial seal hunt was unanimously approved to pass for second reading.  Putting an end to Canada’s cruel and wasteful commercial seal hunt will FINALLY be debated in the Senate!

This is Senator Harb’s third attempt to get the bill through.  In 2010 He failed to find a seconder and the motion died a swift death.  In 2011 it was reported that Conservative Senator Lowell Murray seconded the motion but other senators voted against allowing the proposal to appear for discussion on the order paper.  Senator Harb, undeterred, returned for a third attempt and this time the motion was seconded by liberal Senator Larry Campbell and was then passed unanimously to move forward for second reading and debate.

Senator Harb’s bill calls for an end to the commercial seal hunt and compensation to be given to sealers.  The bill does not target or affect the Inuit subsistence hunt which is also exempt from the EU trade ban on seal products.

Reaction to this momentous event has been swift.  Humane Society International/Canada issued the following statement:

Senator Harb’s bill is timely and would effectively end the commercial seal slaughter in Canada. HSI/Canada further proposes that any legislation to end the seal slaughter be paired with a federal sealing industry buyout. This plan would involve the federal government ending the commercial seal slaughter, providing immediate compensation to sealers and investing in economic alternatives in the communities involved. Polling shows half of sealers holding an opinion are already in support of this plan and the overwhelming majority of Canadians are willing to fund it. Given sealers and other Canadians are willing to move beyond commercial sealing, it is time our government acted.”

The Green Party of Canada issued a press release which stated:

“The sealing industry had been dying for years,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “It’s time to stop providing life support to this disappearing industry by ending the massive government subsidies. Taxpayers’ money is better spent creating sustainable economic opportunities in coastal communities.”

International Fund for Animal Welfare issued the following statement:

Senator Harb’s bill is supported by public opinion polls that repeatedly show the majority of Canadians would like to see an end to the commercial seal hunt.  At the very least, the Canadian government should debate this issue on behalf of those citizens. It’s time.

When asked about the chances of the bill ultimately being passed, Senator Harb replied, “I’m a realist. I do believe the government and the Senate will not allow me to get it through. But I want to get the discussion going, whether they like it or not. That’s democracy.“   Whether or not this bill is ultimately successful, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind this marks a turning point in Canada.  As the Chronicle Herald pointed out:  “But the bill is another hint that the days of unwavering loyalty to the seal hunt are coming to an end.” 

Reaction from the pro-sealing camp has also been swift.  Sealing industry representatives have spoken against calls to end the unprofitable seal hunt, claiming Canada’s sealing industry is “very much alive and well.”  They provide some disingenuous facts to back up those dubious claims.

Here, they neglect to mention the profits and exports have been declining with each passing year.  In 2011 the seal hunt brought in under $1 million, a figure dwarfed by the millions of dollars the Canadian government spends each year to subsidize the annual slaughter.  As well, substantial markets to seal products have closed since 2005.  The EU banned seal products in 2010 and Russia – which accounted for 90% of exports – banned sealskins last August.  Markets in China, long-promised by the Canadian government, have not materialized.

Hmmmm, just a tad misleading to claim sealskin prices have increased this year when the Newfoundland government gave $3.6M to a processing company to buy all the seal skins to stockpile in case markets pick up in future!  And let’s not forget the sum in excess of $17,000 the government paid a St. John’s furrier to shill sealskin at a recent international fur expo at which the only country present that did have a trade ban on seal products was Canada!!

In my opinion, an industry with a dwindling profit margin relying on subsidies from Canadian taxpayers and bailouts from the federal and provincial governments just to keep afloat is clearly NOT “alive and well.”  In my opinion, that is a drain on taxpayers should should be ended.

But of course Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette is blaming it all on the Vegetarian Lobby armed with pointy carrots and a secret agenda to turn the world into tofu-eating tree-huggers. And she also wants to market seal meat for our cats and dogs.  Oh Senator.  Don’t you remember?  They tried feeding seal meat to minks on fur farms.  The minks all died.

A frank and honest discussion about Canada’s cruel and wasteful commercial seal hunt is long-overdue.  Let’s start talking!

What does one do with hundreds of pounds of dead baby seal flesh no one wants?  Feed it to the homeless.  Hey, they’re homeless; they’re bound to be hungry, right?  And, after all, beggars can’t be choosers, can they?

The sealers would have us believe their donation is based on goodwill and public relations.  Leonce Arsenault, organizer of the event, explained, “We come to Montreal to show people that the sealers are not as barbaric want to believe the animal rights activists who have misinformation about the seal hunt,” (Google translation which is rough, but you get the idea.)

Barbaric?  Surely not.  These charming fellows were out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence slaughtering defenceless weeks-old seal pups as they clung to melting pans of ice, shooting or beating them to death.  No, not barbaric at all.

Photo: ACASC/Bridget Curran

This year some of the worst ice in history was recorded in the Maritime and Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence regions and alarmingly high pup mortality rate ensued.  Nursery ice melted from under the pups before they could swim and they drowned, or pups were stranded on land where they fell prey to predators such as coyotes and large birds.  The sealers from the Maggies were the very few who bothered to go out in their boats and it was definitely a Slaughter of the Survivors.

The Canadian government recently announced a deal had been struck with China to import seal products, but those markets have failed to materialize and IFAW revealed the Canadian government had been making similar announcements for nearly 20 years with no markets ever materializing.  Just more empty promises.  So rather than admit there are no markets for the meat, they turn it into a PR circus event, foisting it on the homeless and patting themselves on the back. 

This year the record low ice and high pup mortality should have been enough for the government to cancel this year’s seal hunt.  Instead, the government hiked the quota to the ridiculously high sum of 400,000 and let sealers go out and slaughter every surviving pup they managed to find.  And for what?  To dump the flesh nobody else wants on the homeless?  Gesture of goodwill?  Slap in the face, more like.

I hope no one gets sick if they eat the seal meat.  Seals are prone to diseases and parasites and humans can become infected with brucellosis and trichinosis after coming into contact with infected seals or seal products.  In Canada, seals are processed as fish, not mammals, so the seal carcasses are not screened for diseases found in mammals.  When I made inquiries about the food safety protocols for planned shipments of seal meat to Asia, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency confirmed the seal meat was “being handled entirely by the fish program.  A licence from DFO to harvest the seals is required and seal meat for export to China would have to be processed through a federally registered fish plant.”  When I asked if that meant  the veterinary oversight and meat hygiene protocols mandated under the federal ‘Meat Inspection Act’ are not being applied to the processing of seal meat, I never heard back from them.  I wonder why…

Scary, no?  But as I said, I guess the sealers’ reasoning is these people are homeless and hungry so they’ll take what they can get.  What an insult.  Here’s an idea:  if the sealers are so poverty-stricken that they must beat to death baby seals to earn a living to feed their families, why aren’t they feeding the seal meat to their children?  Point to ponder…

DFO has long denied the Canadian government subsidizes the commercial seal hunt.  On its webpage Canadian Seal Harvest – Myths and Realities it makes the following claim:

DFO does not subsidize the seal harvest. Sealing is an economically viable industry. Some subsidies were provided prior to 2001 for market and product development, including a meat subsidy, to encourage full use of the seal.

$100,000 govt subsidy to Canadian Seal Marketing Group to attend trade shows in China

So government says no subsidies have been given to the sealing industry since 2001.  And yet a recent review of grants and contributions over $25,000 reported on the website of federally-run ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) revealed two sizeable contributions made to the sealing industry as recently as 2010. 

The first subsidy was a $100,000 contribution made by the federal government on May 10, 2010 awarded to Canadian Seal Marketing Group of Little Catalina, Newfoundland.  The contribution was to “attend trade shows in Russia and China.”   The Canadian Seal Marketing Group is an organization comprised of GC Rieber Carino Ltd., a Canadian company located in Dildo, Newfoundland; NuTan Furs Inc. of Catalina, Newfoundland; and Ta Ma Su Seal Products Inc. of Quebec.

$50,000 govt subsidy to Sealer's Cooperative to develop business plan to flog "value-added" dead baby seals

The second subsidy was a $50,000 contribution made on September 11, 2010 to Northeast Coast Sealer’s Cooperative Society, Limited of Fleur de Lys, Newfoundland, to “develop comprehensive plan for value-added seal products.” 

The Northeast Coast Sealer’s Cooperative Society is no stranger to financial assistance from ACOA, as it participated in the ACOA-led Atlantic Canada “seafood and aquaculture” trade mission to China in 2007.

Between 1995 and 2000 the government of Canada and Newfoundland provided $20 million in subsidies to the sealing industry, including direct payments to sealers.

And of course each year there are subsidies in the form of services and infrastructure - Spotter planes and helicopters are used to locate seal pups and radio coordinates to sealers (Interestingly, DFO refuses to provide those coordinates to licensed observers).  Coast Guard icebreakers are used to forge paths to the seal pups for sealers.  One icebreaker – the Amundsen – reportedly costs $50,000 per day to operate in winter months.  Vessels and helicopters are also used to rescue sealers and their vessels in distress.  On the administrative side, DFO staff processes observation permit applications and interviews each applicant.

Photo: HSUS/Gray Mitchell

Our tax dollars have also paid for expensive international trips for politicians, sealers and Inuit representatives to lobby against the EU seal product ban.  In 2007 the Canadian government organized a tour by European journalists to Newfoundland & Labrador and the Magdalen Islands.  The tour allowed journalists to meet with sealers, sealing industry bullies and politicians to give what the Canadian government claimed to be the truth about the seal harvest.  Interestingly, the journalists were not invited to witness the actual “harvest” as it took place. 

So many subsidies, so little time to detail them all…In April of 2008 the Financial Post published an article penned by Toronto lawyer/journalist Murray Teitel setting out the vast sums of money the Canadian government lavishes on this crumbling industry.  The article, entitled The millions Ottawa spends subsidizing the seal hunt, is definitely worth a read.

Polling consistently shows Canadians oppose the annual slaughter, yet millions of our tax dollars are lavished on the failing industry each year.  It would actually cost less to implement a licence buyback program!  A recent poll conducted with Newfoundland sealers concluded 50% of sealers holding an opinion were interested in a licence buyout.

Photo: ACASC/Bridget Curran

I recently asked Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff whether the Liberal Party of Canada would be willing to help Atlantic Canadian sealers should they decide to lobby the government for a buyout.  He stated that if sealers wanted a licence buyout, of course the Liberal Party of Canada would help them get it.  This was the first time Ignatieff has formally stated he would assist sealers with a licence buyout, and is a promising sign.

The Canadian commercial seal hunt is an unprofitable venture, a drain on Canadian taxpayers and an embarrassment to us all internationally.  It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad and shut it down for good.