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Canadian Inuit snap ‘sealfies’ to defend way of life

Indigenous community in crisis hopes social media campaign draws positive attention, despite ire of seal advocates

Inuit families are taking to the ice Friday for a ‘sealfie’ protest against critics who they say have stigmatized the seal hunt — a tradition that members of the indigenous community argue is crucial to their way of life.

At the Inalquit curling ring in the Canadian Arctic territory of Nunavut, Inuit men, women and children are expected to don clothes and boots made from the animal’s hides for a group picture, inspired by the selfie phenomenon.

Pictures of Inuit people wearing sealskin started circulating on Twitter as a playful response to American TV host Ellen DeGeneres’ recent characterization of seal hunting as “atrocious” and “inhumane.” At first it appeared to be just the latest Internet meme or online activism. But the #sealfie campaign, coupled with new findings about food insecurity and a suicide epidemic, has cast a spotlight on a serious issue. Canada’s Inuit are in crisis, and they say seal hunting is one of the few traditions keeping their people and culture alive.

Canada’s once nomadic indigenous people are “a culture in shock,” said Inuit activist Aaju Peter. “You have to remember, we are one of the oldest living cultures,” she told Al Jazeera. “As climate change happens, the culture is changing because of imposed customs. And on top of that, it’s making it very hard for our hunters to feed the hungry.”

Approximately 32,000 people live in Nunavut, a vast, cold territory about the size of Mexico. Getting them food and supplies requires a fleet of ships and planes from southern Canada. Bad weather sometimes thwarts the deliveries, but when they do make it, the shipping costs are exorbitant. The cost is passed on to customers. Despite some government subsidies, shoppers have to pay about $10 for celery, $9 for two kilograms of sugar and $12 for instant coffee. In a community where unemployment is nearly twice the national Canadian average, at 12.5 percent, a lot of families are going without.

The Inuit in Nunavut are suffering more hunger and want than any other indigenous people in the developed world. Seventy percent of preschoolers live in food-insecure homes, with parents and children are regularly skipping meals, according to a new report by the Council of Canadian Academies.

Peter said that hunting seals provides vital meat to many Inuit communities in need. “Over the radio comes a hunter or wife saying, ‘If you want seal meat, come to this house.’ This is how the communities are surviving. The hunters are providing,” she said. 

As climate change happens, the culture is changing because of imposed customs. And on top of that, it’s making it very hard for our hunters to feed the hungry.

Aaju Peter

Inuit activist

For the Inuit, the seal is an important animal. The fur clothes them, the meat nourishes them, and the fat keeps their lanterns burning through the long, dark winter. Gabriel Nirlungayuk, wildlife director for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the group organizing Friday’s “sealfie” protest, said that people like DeGeneres who attack seal hunting end up hurting his community. “I don’t understand that concept to fight against our culture,” he said. “We live in a harsh environment. We are one of the few races that have survived in what they call an inhospitable world, and the only way my ancestors were able to live was hunting and fishing.”

There is little doubt that the survival of Inuit communities and culture, especially among young people, is a serious concern. With melting ice and a shortened hunting season due to climate change, young people are less inclined to follow the path of their elders. The mining jobs that have made Nunavut one of Canada’s strongest economies require what Inuit refer to as southern skills and language, and not everyone has or wants them.

The transition period, where you have to be bilingual and bicultural has become very stressful,” Peter said. “You have to be 100 percent good in the Inuit culture, and you have to be 100 percent good in the Western-imposed culture, and finding your way as a young person is hard enough to start with, but when you’re bombarded with these two different cultures …”

That cultural stress has helped contribute to a mental health nightmare. Last year, at least 45 people committed suicide in the community, according to the territory’s chief coroner. The suicide rate among Nunavut’s Inuit is 14.5 times the national rate, according to Jack Hicks, who has served as a suicide prevention adviser to the Nunavut government. For teenage boys, it is 40 times higher. “All the families know everybody, so every time there is a suicide, every family is touched,” Peter said.

The national government in Ottawa recently announced it is plotting a national suicide strategy and wants the Nunavut authorities to take part. In the meantime, Lynn Ryan Mackenzie of Nunavut’s Health Department said local nurses are experimenting with telepsychiatry, using video conferencing to partner with a psychiatrist in southern Canada. The Nunavut government is releasing a new food-security plan next month and is soliciting ideas on how to create an economy by integrating “country” foods into schools and hospitals.

DeGeneres has so far not responded to the #sealfie campaign, but the Humane Society, to which she gave $1.5 million to support anti-sealing efforts, broke its media silence this week and appeared to extend an olive branch to the Inuit. “We have never opposed the Inuit subsistence seal hunt that occurs in Canada’s North. Animal protection groups oppose the commercial seal slaughter, which occurs in Atlantic Canada and is almost entirely conducted by nonaboriginal people,” said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Humane Society International/Canada.

But Inuit activist and filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril rejected Aldworth’s overture, saying the damage has been done. She said the Humane Society’s actions trump its words, since it fought to pass legislation banning the sale of sealskin across Europe. “They failed to mention this legislation absolutely harms the ability of the Inuit to sell our seal skins, which therefore in turn affects our ability to hunt and feed our families,” she said.

Arnaquq-Baril said she expects the solutions to her community’s problems to come from within. “Inuit haven’t survived for thousands of years in the Arctic by not being able to adapt,” she said.

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