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Harp seal. | Photo courtesy of ©International Fund for Animal Welfare

Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is challenging perspectives on the Canadian annual seal hunt through her film Angry Inuk, which shows the Inuit side of this controversial topic.

“The narrative about seal hunting that has been portrayed in the south of Canada and in the United States so far has been 99.9 per cent from the perspective of anti-sealers who live in the south.”

— Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

Every year thousands of seals are hunted off the east coast of Canada. This hunt is supported and monitored by the federal government. In addition to regulating how many seals can be caught, Canada also provides funding to further seal products. It has been a target for animal rights activists for years and the focus of many anti-seal hunt campaigns.

Ulus used to skin seals. | Photo © Caitlin Hart

Ulus used to skin seals. [Photo © Caitlin Hart]

“The narrative about seal hunting that has been portrayed in the south of Canada and in the United States so far has been 99.9 per cent from the perspective of anti-sealers who live in the south,” Arnaquq-Baril said. “[They] have no dependence on seals for food … have probably never met an Inuit person and have no idea that we’re the majority of commercial sealers.”

Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk tackles the misconceptions around seal hunting in Canada by showing the Inuit side to the Canadian annual hunt. “I don’t think it’s often that the public has had a chance to hear from the Inuit perspective,” she explained. Whenever a seal hunt is presented to the public it is often the east coast commercial seal hunt. Images from these hunts have inspired boycotts and international bans on seal merchandise.

The European Union banned the import of all seal products in 2009, with an exception on products that could be proven to be the result of indigenous hunting, and this ban was strengthened in 2015. While the EU has written this exception into the ban the Inuit have seen a dramatic decrease in seal skin exports.

The pro-sealing group Inuit Sila, based in Greenland, has been working to campaign against this ban since 2012. “Seal traders of Greenland have lost around [the equivalent of] $70 million in the export value of seal skin,” said Bjarne Lyberth, an environmental consultant for Inuit Sila. Before the EU ban there was about 40 years of negative campaigning against seal skin, he explained, adding that the EU ban has been an approval of these negative campaigns.

Sculpture of a seal hunter. | Photo © Caitlin Hart

Sculpture of a seal hunter. [Photo © Caitlin Hart]

A 2014 study from the Polar Record found that Inuit-hunted seal pelts from Canada dropped in price from $70 per skin in 2005 to less than $20 in 2011. Another study that year from the Canadian Journal of Public Health found Inuit communities in northern Canada had high levels of food insecurity. Reporting that a little over half of the households surveyed did not have adequate access to sufficient food.

“The ban has really affected their livelihoods,” said Donna Patrick, president of the Canadian Anthropology Society. Patrick is a professor of sociology and anthropology and has been studying Inuit culture for 25 years. “There’s not a lot of job opportunities in those communities, those families rely on hunting,” Patrick said. Not being able to sell seal products, she explained, makes it difficult to purchase the equipment necessary to continue hunting.

“Seal hunting is one of the very few ecologically sustainable options we have for economy in the arctic,” Arnaquq-Baril said. Some of the only other options are uranium mining and oil drilling she explained. “When you have the poorest people in North America literally going hungry we’re going to turn to whatever options we have to make a living and feed our kids.”

Toy birds or 'Oopiks' made from seal skin. | Photo © Caitlin Hart

Toy birds or ‘Oopiks’ made from seal skin. [Photo © Caitlin Hart]

Animal rights groups that lobby for an end to the Canadian seal hunt have started to distinguish Inuit seal hunting from their campaigns. Greenpeace issued an apology for its impact on Inuit people in 2014, referring to their hunt as subsistence hunting as opposed to commercial hunting. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has been lobbying since 1969 to end seal hunting, says that it is not against Inuit hunting. “I am aware there is a commercial aspect to the Inuit hunt,” Sheryl Fink said, director of IFAW wildlife campaigns in Canada. “We’ve started calling it the east coast commercial seal hunt to add further distinction between the two.”

It is this distinction that inspired Arnaquq-Baril to make Angry Inuk. “That misunderstanding is out there, so it just felt natural and necessary to make a film on the subject,” she said. Arnaquq-Baril’s hopes is that the film will change how people view seal hunting. “People have seen it as a black and white issue for a very long time,” she said. “And it’s just not black and white.”

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