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Canada's Season of Shame is Upon Us
By Matthew Scully
The National Post (Canada)
March 28, 2005

In the late 1950s, when the seal-hunting industry seemed to be dying its natural death, it fell to a prominent Newfoundlander to pronounce judgment. "A very colourful page has gone out in Newfoundland's history," said A.B. Perlin, editor of the old St. John's Daily News, in an interview you can still hear at the CBC Radio Web site. But the passing of the industry was not to be mourned:

"Seal fishery was a wasteful industry," Mr. Perlin observed. "It was, in many ways, an unpleasant industry. I've heard many a sealer talk about the small whitecoats, two or three days old, almost looking up with tears in their eyes as they killed them. And frankly it's an industry that we could do without ... And from the standpoint of humanitarianism alone, it's probably a good industry to be without."

It was the voice of a sensible man -- not presuming to condemn all that came before, but recognizing that things do change, and violent old ways need not go on forever. Any respectability there might once have been to the slaughter of young seals depended on the raw need for fur and sustenance. The men Mr. Perlin described saw the carnage as a necessary evil. And necessary evils, when the necessity has passed away, are just evils.

Listening to that 1958 radio broadcast, it's interesting as well that no one at the time thought to argue that the killing of seal pups had to go on to protect the livelihoods of fishermen. The fiction that seals are a ravenous rival, snatching up all the cod of the North Atlantic, had not yet been invented. That twisting of basic marine biology (for ages, fishermen have known that harp seals eat far more predators of cod than they do cod) would come only in our own day, when Canada's industrial fleets and fisheries ministers would need a handy scapegoat for their own reckless and craven policies.

So it is that two generations after the whole sorry business was declared dead, Canada and the world must again in the coming weeks witness the slaughter of the seal pups. Unless Prime Minister Martin himself acts to stop it -- a merciful decision still in his power to make -- hundreds of thousands of these newborn creatures will again be clubbed, butchered, drowned or skinned alive in full view of a watching world.

In America and elsewhere, millions of people will again read accounts like this from The Washington Post last year: Amid the mayhem, "a seal appears to gasp for air, blood running from its nose as it lies on an ice floe. Not far away, a sealer sharpens his knife blade. The seal seems to be thrashing as its fur is sliced from its torso."

Rebecca Aldworth, a native Newfoundlander writing for The Christian Science Monitor, gives us these images from the six seal hunts she has witnessed: "The few terrified survivors, left to crawl through the carnage. The shouted obscenities and threats from the sealers, gunfire cracking ominously in the distance. The pitiful cries of the pups; the repellent thuds of clubs raining down on soft skulls. Sealers' laughter echoing across the ice floes."

The New York Times, in an April dispatch, may have captured the spirit of the enterprise best, describing how the seal pup killers "utter a sarcastic 'welcome aboard' as they throw the skins on their 65-foot boat."

Across the world people will read of such things and they will think of Canada -- never mind that by far most Canadians oppose the hunt or that honest Canadian fishermen must pay the price for this spectacle.

When the first pup is struck, that blow will set in motion an American and European boycott of Canadian fishery products. Tens of thousands of Canadian fishery jobs will instantly be at risk. The few million dollars that sealers will make from the killing -- on top of the millions more in government subsidies to the industry -- will come at a cost of hundreds of millions in revenue to legitimate Canadian fisheries.

Yet even now the seal pup hunters appear as indifferent to the interests or wishes of Canadians as to the whimpers of the newborn creatures dying at their feet. The only pity they seem to experience is of the self-directed variety, as I discovered after writing another column on the subject a few months ago.

Among the responses were the familiar lectures on nature's harsh realities, as in a column by Joe Walsh of The St. John's Telegram. "What about other animals?" he demands to know. "Would he afford the same sympathy and caring to a young cow or pig before it enters the slaughterhouse.... They have feelings, too."

The answer is yes -- of course. Human beings have duties of kindness and decency to all animals, as many animal-welfare statutes affirm. We do not make a standard of the worst practices, and it is no defence of one form of cruelty to try diverting attention to others.

As for Mr. Walsh's own grasp of nature's realities, he insists on putting quotation marks around the "baby" in "baby seals." The creatures soon to be exterminated will be just days old; many will not even have had their first meal; some at this very moment are still inside their mothers. And like the sealers he defends, Mr. Walsh is not even man enough to admit that they are baby animals.

From a fellow named Hugh came this succinct e-mail: "Re your drivel: Too bad you're not a seal pup."

Jack, in Newfoundland, developed the thought a little further: "Heaven help us if we actually needed advice from a cretin like you. You have about as much relevance as that moron [Margaret Wente of The Globe and Mail] -- like you, the poor thing is to be pitied. How dare you! Typical mainlander living in the center of the universe where everyone who doesn't agree with you is labeled a dumb Newfie, or redneck or bigot."

I am far enough removed from Canadian journalism to have no clue who Margaret Wente is -- though I'll take Jack's hostility as a point in her favour. What's clear is that Jack and my other correspondents from the north have a lot of trouble seeing beyond their own festering and self-absorbed resentments. They speak, moreover, for no one but themselves, and all their tough talk is the posture of small and deeply insecure men. If you or I did what they do, we also would prefer the image of a proud, defiant Newfoundlander to that of a selfish, merciless low-life.

Even if there were no money in the seal hunt, you get the feeling that a few of these characters would do it anyway out of pure spite, laughing and shouting "welcome aboard" as they toss the skins aboard. Yet this year more than ever, the cameras are ready and humanity will be paying close attention to the fate of the seal pups. Only the brave intervention of Mr. Martin can spare these unoffending creatures from a cruel death, and spare Canada from learning again that the slaughter of seals is a good industry to do without.

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