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Clash of Two Cultures in Northwest Territories : Canada Activists Take Aim at Native Hunting

December 27, 1987|HERBERT H. DENTON | The Washington Post

YELLOWKNIFE, Canada — When several Eskimo hunters traveled to Montreal from the Northwest Territories for meetings with government officials a few years ago, they shunned the city's first-class French restaurants and dined instead on the food they had brought with them--a seal, which they skinned in their hotel bathtub.

The next morning, a chambermaid saw the blood-splattered bathroom and alerted her supervisors, who called the police. Translators, and technicians who conducted blood tests, ultimately established that the blood was from a seal and that no crime against a human had been committed.

The misunderstanding, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. commentator Alan Herscovi suggested in an examination of what became an animal rights controversy, illus trates what can arise when native custom meets modern Canadian society.

The two cultures are clashing now over the way Eskimos here stalk the wild game that roams the tundra of the Arctic region.

Activist groups in southern Canada, Europe and the United States who succeeded in their "Save the Baby Seals" crusade have expanded their campaign to include the protection of virtually all animals.

Protests Against Traps

Some campaigners in Toronto, opposed to eating meat, have waged protests against Kentucky Fried Chicken stands. Others are campaigning against fur coats by depicting leg-iron traps--used to ensnare minks, foxes and beavers--as weapons of torture.

Many here are afraid, remembering the campaign that ended the practice of clubbing to death baby harp seals and wiped out international markets for virtually all seal fur. As a consequence, the marginal economies of several Arctic communities were ruined. Hundreds of families of sealers and fishermen ended up on welfare.

Stephen Kakfwi, a member of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly and a leader of the Dene Indians in the western Arctic region, said the animal rights activists "are mostly upper middle class and have nothing better to do but to talk about the rights of foxes, monkeys, rabbits.

"It offends me no end. I think they're totally insensitive, that they'd put such a fear into our people. So many of our people still depend on hunting and trapping."

Economic Genocide

John Sperry, the Anglican bishop of the Arctic, said he believes that if animal rights groups succeed in bringing an end to the fur industry in North America, they will be guilty of cultural and economic genocide in the Arctic.

"I use the word genocide with great care," the bishop said. "What these so-called animal rights activists are doing to the native people of the north is really just that. If they could see what impact their cause has had on the lives of these people, the pain that these people are experiencing as a result of that cause, then I am convinced they would rethink their position on this matter."

Native groups have formed lobbying organizations, teamed up with furriers in Toronto and Edmonton and gained the support of the Anglican Church and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to respond to the animal rights groups.

Furs for Foreigners

When the Duke and Duchess of York--Prince Andrew and the former Sarah Ferguson--visited Canada last summer, they were quite pointedly given fur coats and hats. When Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass at Fort Simpson near here in September, he received vestments made of caribou hide and a chair fabricated from moose skin and antlers.

The northern Indians and Eskimos, many of whom now prefer to be called Inuit--"the people"--also have argued their case on television, in radio documentaries and in Canadian newspapers. The vigor of their efforts has clearly caught some of the animal rights groups off guard.

Mike McDiarmid, of the environmental group Greenpeace in Toronto, which had vigorously protested the clubbing of the harp seal pups, said: "Native people were never the target of that ban. The ban was against white-coated pup pelts. . . . We were not very happy to find ourselves in a situation where we were getting criticism from native communities, and we were sensitive to that criticism."

While Canada's Greenpeace chapter continues the campaign on behalf of seals, it has decided against being active in the other animal rights battles, choosing instead to concentrate on environmental and peace and disarmament concerns.

Humane Society Mobilizing

The Toronto Humane Society, which has recently become dominated by animal rights activists, is mobilizing now against the fur industry. "Basically, the position is, we're opposed to trapping and to fur farms," said Elizabeth White, the society's public relations coordinator. "The issue is not so much with the native people. It's more with the more broadly based industry."

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