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Canada's Cowardly Face
By Matthew Scully
National Post, January 05, 2005

When you are in the business of killing baby seals, it takes a strange turn of mind to think of yourself as a victim. Yet this is how Canada's seal-pup hunters have always wanted us to see them – as the victims of "propaganda," meddlesome "outsiders," unfair trade restrictions and other forces arrayed against the noble sealer. And now, as they prepare the boats, guns and clubs for another intrepid assault on the nurseries of the North Atlantic, they ask once again for our sympathy.

The hunters wait until the pups are weaned, at about 12 days, and left alone by their mothers on ice floes off the coasts of Newfoundland, Labrador and Prince Edward Island. If you were there before the sealers arrived in early spring, you would see great masses of pups huddled together, and hear their soft cries filling the air. In one of nature's own stern measures, the baby seals are calling for mothers who have left them forever.

John Efford, a Newfoundland MP and Canada's Minister for Natural Resources, objects to the very term "baby seals" as sentimental propaganda. "It's absolutely wrong," he recently told The Globe and Mail. "It can't be any more wrong to say we're killing baby seals when we're not." Mr. Efford means by this that, instead of killing them in their first week on Earth, the sealers now restrain themselves until the second week, when the pups' winsome white fur has given way to a rougher, grayish coat. But of course, using "baby seal" in the normal, objective sense of an utterly defenseless newborn creature of that species, these are most assuredly baby seals.

In six weeks' time they would learn to fend for themselves. Instead, the men move in, welcoming the newborns into the world with clubs, hakapiks and hooks. With all the manhood – and less skill – that it would take to execute tens of thousands of frantic puppies or kittens, they go by boat and snowmobile from nursery to nursery. British and Canadian veterinarians, observing the scene in recent years, estimated that about 40 percent of victims are skinned alive. Uncounted others are "struck and lost," meaning shot and drowned.

Those who followed last year's hunt, which brought death to some 350,000 pups, will remember such typical scenes as one seal trying to escape as another is clubbed nearby; the creature makes it to water's edge but, too young to even swim, must wait there as the man with the club approaches. Other footage – seen across the world, however unfairly, as the face of Canada – showed sealers routinely dragging conscious pups across the ice with boat hooks, or shooting the seals and leaving them to suffer.

Yet standing there, ankle deep in gore and innocent blood, the sealers just can't understand why anyone would object. And we're all supposed to feel sorry for them, these fine, upstanding fellows so unappreciated by the modern world. Mr. Efford, back when he led Newfoundland's fisheries department, demonstrated the mindset when he proposed to ban all cameras from the scene of the hunts – as if the problem were public knowledge of the event, rather than the event itself.

All involved are understandably averse to cameras. Before the films started airing in the 1970s, the rest of us knew little of seal nurseries or of seal hunting except from the colorful accounts of sealers themselves – much as we once knew nothing of whales and whaling except from the adventurous and self-serving accounts of whalers. The camera, in both cases, allowed all of humanity to witness the scene for ourselves. And this evidence, requiring no narrative or interpretation, has never squared with the proud and heroic self-image of the hunters.

What they have never faced up to is that the "propaganda" by which they feel so victimized consists of straight photographic documentation of what they do, and to whom they do it – the complete helplessness of the creatures an unanswerable rebuke to their slayers. What the sealers still dismiss as "cultural intolerance" is actually the natural and objective reaction of an overwhelming majority of people -- urban and rural, liberal and conservative, in Canada and beyond – who have not been desensitized to the cruelty and who have no money to gain from the mayhem.

Self-righteousness and self-pity are a fierce combination, however, and so in recent years the sealers – full-time fishermen who get about 5 percent of their income from the hunt – have found someone else who's been victimizing them: the seal.

The most obvious problem with the now-common claim that harp seals are depleting the North Atlantic cod population is that the seals were there for eons before our fishing fleets arrived, and cod remained plentiful. Marine biologists uniformly tell us that commercially fished cod comprise no more than 3 percent of a harp seal's diet. The seals eat squid, skate and other predators of cod, and so, in this and other ways, actually aid the fisherman if given a chance.

How do such elementary facts of marine science get brushed off? In a political version of the aquatic life chain, industrial fishing interests shift responsibility for their own excesses – the actual cause of cod depletion – on to provincial authorities. These authorities, in turn, have exerted pressure on Ottawa, which now basically pays for the seal hunt as a sort of supplementary-income program for the coastal communities harmed by industrial overfishing. Canadian taxpayers today actually subsidize seal processing plants, along with their government's efforts to peddle seal products abroad as trims, trinkets or useless "aphrodisiacs" for the Asian market.

In this way, the long-term interests of Atlantic Canada have been sacrificed to easy, short-term economics, and a perverse and destructive industry is artificially sustained. Meanwhile, U.S. restaurants, hotels and seafood distributors are preparing to boycott Canadian fish products, which will place many thousands of legitimate Canadian jobs at risk. A seafood and tourism boycott will be aided by a resolution now before the United States Senate to condemn the slaughter, should it be allowed to continue. It is a high cost to pay for the conduct of a cruel and prideful few.

Somehow, though, charges of "cruelty," "barbarism" and the like have never quite resonated with the sealers. Such terms have a plaintive, weepy ring that only plays into their image of "outsiders" as soft and over-refined, and of themselves as rugged and daring men. So this time around let us put the point more plainly, in terms they will understand: The problem with clubbing and skinning these most defenceless of creatures is not merely that it is merciless. The problem is that it is low, dishonourable and cowardly.

These men are forever telling us to take a hard, unsentimental look at the baby seals. They would do better to take a hard, unsentimental look at themselves for once, for their country's sake and for their own.

Matthew Scully served until recently as special assistant and deputy director of speechwriting to U.S. President George W. Bush. He is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.; www.matthewscully.com