A survey from the British government could have a profound impact on the Northwest Territories’ traditional economy, particularly the trade of seal products.
The United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in partnership with the Scottish and Welsh governments, launched an online survey late last month that will inform decision-making on laws related to the commercial fur sector – including whether the UK implements a ban on seal products.
The survey is open to international responses.
Since the UK withdrew from the European Union in January 2020 – commonly known as Brexit – Britain is no longer bound by rules that prevent the EU’s member countries designing their own laws on fur trading.
Currently, though the import of all seal products is banned across the EU, there is an exception for products harvested by Indigenous hunters. Those products are required to have certification from the Nunavut, Northwest Territories, or Greenland governments. A report published by the European Commission in 2020, however, found that exemption has done little to alleviate the ban’s negative impact on northern economies, as reported by Nunatsiaq News.
“When the EU put in the ban on sealskin imports, it had a huge impact on our Indigenous communities,” Johanna Tiemessen, the NWT government’s manager of arts programming and traditional economy, told Cabin Radio. “That market was huge before the ban got put into place.”
The EU first banned the import of whitecoat seal pelts in 1983. While there was an exemption for Inuit hunters, the Seals and Sealing Network says the ban resulted in devastating social and cultural impacts on northern Indigenous communities, including a drop in annual income and a spike in suicide rates.
In 2010, the EU entirely banned the import of seal products, implementing the exemption for Indigenous hunters in 2015.
The impact of international campaigns against seal hunting on Inuit, and their efforts to have the EU ban overturned, are documented in Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s award-winning documentary Angry Inuk. It highlights the importance of seal hunting to food security, the economy, and sustainable environmental practices in the Canadian Arctic.
Tiemessen said the NWT government is working with the Fur Institute of Canada – which advocates for the country’s fur industry – along with the Seals and Sealing Network to market pelts and other products from subsistence hunting to EU countries. She said the territorial government has been in contact with the UK government and are developing a “good working relationship.”
“That’s been a market that’s been disrupted that we’re currently still reintegrating into,” she said.
“There is definitely an appetite for authentic, Indigenous harvested and crafted seal products.”
According to the latest Statistics Canada data, in 2009-2010, there were 27,489 wildlife pelts produced in the NWT at a value of $830,921. The Fur Institute of Canada says the fur trade contributes nearly $1 billion to Canada’s economy each year and directly employs 60,000 people, including 50,000 active trappers.
Tiemessen encouraged all northerners to respond to the British survey, which is open until June 28, including those who aren’t directly impacted by the traditional economy.
“Our voice is strong in our small numbers,” she said.
Meanwhile, the NWT government is seeking input on its own programs for trappers and harvesters.