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AFPA vessel loaded with seal pelts after a commercial seal hunt in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Canada. Seal hunting is a contentious issue in Canada. Toronto: A newly opened restaurant in Toronto sparked heated online debate recently by revealing that two dishes on its menu would contain seal meat. K-km Kitchen, an Indigenous-owned and operated restaurant, was targeted by an online petition which gained more than 6,300 signatures. The petition called for the restaurant to remove seal from its menu, stating that seal hunting is “violent, horrific, traumatising and unnecessary”.

The controversy again highlighted the often uncomfortable relationship between animal rights and environmental groups and Indigenous communities who are struggling with profound issues of poverty and deprivation.

The work of such activist organisations is crucial in educating the general public through events such as World Vegan Day, and in encouraging government policies that promote a more sustainable future for the planet. But with change comes responsibility, something that Greenpeace recognised in 2014 when it openly apologised to the Inuit people of North America and Greenland for its role in causing them 40 years of grief, hardship.

This period has been dubbed “The Great Depression” by the Inuit, referring to the seal hunting ban in Europe and, more significantly, the associated drop in public approval of seal products.

While Greenpeace has now halted its anti-sealing campaigns, organisations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are still running campaigns that Inuit communities say threaten their very existence.

In Toronto, the protest against K-km Kitchen’s seal-based dishes prompted a counter-petition by local artist Aylan Couchie, who claims the original petition was ill-informed and that seal products hold historical and cultural significance for Indigenous communities. Couchie contends that targeting a small Indigenous business when hundreds of other restaurants in Toronto use meat from inhumane sources is anti-Indigenous.

The crux of this latest controversy, however, is the meat’s source: SeaDNA, which provides the restaurant with its seal meat, is a company that takes part in the commercial seal hunt every year in Canada.

According to Joseph Shawana, head chef and owner of K-Km Kitchen: “We did our due diligence when sourcing our meat. All hunters [at SeaDNA] go through rigorous training to ensure they hunt the seals as humanely as possible. And they only harvest what they need — that is something intrinsic in our Indigenous culture. Only take what you need, not what you want.”

Shawana says he is happy to discuss the issue with the protesters, telling them: “Come visit me at the restaurant: I’d love to answer any questions.” In his view, the controversy stems from misinformation. “The Inuit have never harvested white seal pups — that is very frowned upon. Also, Canada has a huge, federally regulated seal industry. The seal hunt is not what it was like before, when the seal population was less than a million — now it’s over seven million. “

The commercial seal hunt has been a contentious subject between animal rights activists and Indigenous groups for decades. In the 1970s, Ifaw began to mobilise public opinion against the annual hunt of baby harp seals (known as “whitecoats”) off Canada’s east coast. The organisations used photographs of helpless baby seals being clubbed to death by fishermen to create protest campaigns.

After immense public support, in 1983 the European Economic Community (EEC) banned the importing of seal skin and furs for two years. Public opinion against the seal hunt was so strong that demand for seal pelts and furs dropped dramatically all over the world.

As animal rights organisations celebrated the collapse […]

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