Nunavut hunters celebrate spring by harvesting baby seals
“It’s tender right to the bone. You can even eat the bones"
Sometimes you just want to go hunting baby seals.
Paul Quassa, one of Nunavut’s most prominent cabinet ministers, made that clear to the most powerful people in the territory June 12.
Sitting for the final grueling day of a three-week legislative sitting in Iqaluit, Quassa rose before the premier and his fellow MLAs to salute hunters in the High Arctic who usually hunt three-to-four-month-old seals in June.
“They usually do baby seal hunting in Igloolik. Usually what happens in June is we do seal hunting back home,” Quassa said with a smile.
“I am happy to announce that, and they always say, ‘tauva.’”
Quassa later explained to Nunatsiaq News the meaning of tauva in the context of harvesting young seals.
For non-Inuit, think of it as Whac-A-Mole on ice.
A mother seal digs several breathing holes — called aglus — making it easier for seal pups to pop out of the water to breathe.
“And we try to find each hole. So there’s maybe 20 of us, all waiting at an aglu, not too far from each other,” Quassa said.
“I would know if a seal comes up if the water moves a bit. And if it doesn’t come up to me, and it’s gone, and I know it’s gone, I would say, ‘Taaaaauva!’”
Then the baby seals, which Quassa calls “silver jars,” would naturally swim to another hole where a hunter is waiting.
“We normally only use harpoons, or a hook. You normally don’t use a gun,” Quassa said. “The skin is too beautiful — if you shoot it, it’s going to make holes.”
“It’s a silver skin compared to an adult seal. The skin is what we go after. And of course, the meat,” he said.
Quassa’s voice comes alive when talking about the raw flesh of a baby seal, so tender and tasty.
“They are the most delicious seal meat you ever taste.”
It would be tough to find someone from Igloolik who disagrees with that.
Just as southern chefs prepare lamb and veal as a delicacy, Inuit seek the tender offerings of young ring seal.
“It’s tender right to the bone. You can even eat the bones,” said Elijah Evaluarjuk, who runs the Tujurmivik Hotel in Igloolik. “Older people really love the meat. It’s so good to eat. Most people will boil it for a soup, but you can also fry it up with onions.”
Evaluarjuk says the spring baby seal hunt is a tradition dating back to the great-grandfathers and even before.
“My son is out seal hunting right now with his friends, keeping the tradition alive,” said Evaluarjuk.
“It brings our family together. I haven’t had any seal yet this spring but once they’re caught, they will be shared around the community. This keeps families together, keeps the community together.”
Paul Irngaut, also from Igloolik and a friend of Evaluarjuk’s, says three or four families usually go together, often to a place 50 to 60 kilometres east of Igloolik called Siurajuk.
People fan out on the ice to look for seal holes as Quassa had described, taking note of any telltale signs of a seal pup — clumps of moulted white fur, Irngaut said.
If you type “baby seal” into Google, once you scroll past the images of cute white pups on the ice and a couple of Wikipedia references, the first site you’ll come to is “Canadian Seal Slaughter,” which is devoted to “the issues” by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
In an opinion piece published June 20 on nunatsiaqonline.com, Greenpeace Canada is hoping to “set the record straight” by apologizing for the harm done to indigenous seal harvesters in their campaign against the commercial seal hunt in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Though the campaign was directed against the commercial hunting of seals — and not the small-scale, subsistence hunting carried out by northern Indigenous and coastal peoples — we did not always communicate this clearly enough, and the consequences of that, though unintended, were far-reaching,” said Joanna Kerr, Greenpeace Canada executive director.
While PETA, Greenpeace and others make a distinction between Canada’s maritime commercial harvest and Inuit traditional harvesting, they have so vilified the commercial hunt with cute pictures of baby seals that many people still believe all seal hunting is evil.
Inuit singer and performer Tanya Tagaq was instrumental in shutting down the Twitter account of a rabid animal rights activist and cyberbully recently who digitally altered a photo of a seal being skinned on Tagaq’s Twitter feed so that it was Tagaq’s daughter being skinned.
This widespread public opinion has had a devastating impact on Inuit seal harvesting economic development opportunities over the past few decades, some argue.
Aaju Peter, an Inuk clothing designer, lawyer, and staunch advocate for the Canadian seal trade, is a passionate and articulate spokesperson.
But even though she speaks several languages, she still finds it hard to describe the high quality of baby seal skin.
“It’s almost like wool. Or more like beaver. Mix between beaver and lambskin,” Peter concluded. “For socks and for mitts, it’s beautiful. It’s not stiff and it’s not sticky.”
Peter, a member of the Order of Canada, is proud of the ancient practice of seal hunting and highly critical of those from away who jeopardize that practice, often as a result of misinformed opinions.
The United States as well as the European Union have banned the import of seal products, although the EU says there’s an exemption available for Inuit who hunt seal for subsistence — an exemption Peter isn’t opposed to.
The problem, say sealskin proponents, is that banning the trade for others kills the global market, leaving Nunavut’s niche supply with few export avenues.
For that reason, Inuit groups such as Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami are still bitter over the EU trade ban which the federal government has tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn through European and international courts.
“I would like the Europeans to start recognizing that what they’re doing is, I call it, cultural death to our people,” Peter said.
“It is making it so hard for the hunters to sell the skins for our communities, to sell the skins to keep providing for the community.”
At this point, most of the seals caught in Nunavut are eaten locally and the skins given to seamstresses for products sold to Nunavummiut or territorial visitors.
Peter talked about the importance of cultural events, such as the upcoming Celebration of the Seal in Iqaluit June 28. It’s an opportunity to showcase Inuit culture, past and present, she said, and to inform others about the harvest.
“[People] talk about, it’s a bad thing to hunt seal. It’s a bad thing to wear seal. You guys are savages. And all that negative talk. Where, from our culture and from our standpoint, it is a beautiful thing when you see a seal on the ice, and there’s blood. It looks so delicious.”
Not that Inuit need a reason to justify the seal hunt, Quassa said.
“We don’t really give a hoot what down south [says] because this is our food. How would they feel if we start asking them about their pigs or cows or poor little lambs?” Quassa said.
“We live our lives and they should just accept that. We accept how they live, how they eat. I don’t know how the hell they can eat pig feet.”
Organizers of this year’s Celebration of the Seal event in Iqaluit have tentatively planned to hold it on the afternoon of June 28.