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An Interview with Alethea Arnaqua-Baril
by Rose Finlay

For decades, international animal rights and environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd have been actively working to dismantle the seal hunting trade in the arctic regions. In this illuminating documentary, it becomes clear that the politics of seal hunting is more complex than the images of the crying baby seal will lead you to believe. The baby seal image is actually part of a lucrative campaign for animal rights groups and their financial gain is at the expense of the economic stability of indigenous peoples. Many Inuit people rely on the seal skin trade for income and when sale of these skins is banned, the result is economic depression in an area without many other options other than oil. In Angry Inuk director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril passionately lays out the evidence, that indigenous seal hunting is actually more humane, ethical, and environmentally sound than the alternatives.

Rose Finlay: Despite the film being about seal hunting, women are an important part of not just the seal skin trade, but also in advocating for Inuit rights. Did you mean for it to be such a woman-centric film?

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril: I didn’t mean for it to be. I thought it was going to be all about men and seal hunting, and it is, but when I went to a small town to film the first day and I tried to call a town meeting, only two elderly women were there. I asked if the people are just too shy to be on camera, because that is quite often the case with Inuit but they said, “No, no, it’s just the first clear day we’ve had in a week so they’re out seal hunting.” I’m such a townie and so not a hunter. I show up and want to talk about seal hunting on the only day in a week when they can go hunting. They’re like “I don’t want to talk about seal hunting I want to go seal hunting!”

The women were kind enough to spend some time with me and one of the things the women said was, “You know the men; they’re always going to hunt. We’re always going to need meat. Sure they’re affected by this, but they’re going to continue to be who they are and, whenever they can afford it, they’ll go hunting. It’s the women who are affected the most by this because it’s the women who put so much work in scraping the skins, making them useable, sewing clothing and trying to sell the sealskin products.” That really blew me away because the anti-seal hunt activists always focus on the hunting and I was focusing on the hunting and that made me look at the bigger picture.

RF: Something I found very interesting was how often times the legislation will create exceptions for subsistence seal hunting, ignoring that it is in fact a major form of income for many Inuit. In the film, you address how this often comes from a stereotypical idea that Inuit are still living as they did a hundred years ago. Does this still come up?

AAB: I often get asked: “So why don’t you guys go back to your traditional lifestyle?” Besides that being impossible due to the government policies back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, today we don’t have the skills to live out on the land year round like we used to even if we wanted to. I find it kind of amazing when people say, “Well, wouldn’t it be better for the animals and environment if you went back to the way you used to live like 200 years ago?” There they are burning fossil fuels, eating factory farmed animals, wearing plastic clothes and couldn’t I say the same thing to them? Wouldn’t it be better for the world if you went back to living the way you did two hundred years ago? The double-standard is just kind of breathtaking sometimes but it’s constant.

RF: When Greenpeace came out with their apology for their anti-sealing campaigns, it was an emotional moment, because you were finally acknowledged by a group who had been ignoring your community for so long. Have Greenpeace or other groups with anti-sealing campaigns followed up?

AAB: Greenpeace is now very active on their Save the Arctic campaign. When we were doing the sealfies [selfies with seal skin products], there was a lot of media attention and I think groups like Greenpeace, IFAW and Sea Shepherd were getting interview requests from major news outlets asking to talk to them about what seal commercial hunting means to Inuit. I think there was some pressure there to appear to be in line with indigenous peoples and to not appear like they’re oppressing them. So within a couple of months, Greenpeace reissued the apology they had put out in 1984. When the ‘83 ban [of the import of skins of harp seal pups in the EU] happened, a year later Greenpeace saw the devastation in the Inuit communities and put out an apology. Afterwards from 1983 until 2015, they didn’t do a damn thing. So when they reissued the apology in 2015 I was very skeptical. But it’s now been two years since that second apology and they still haven’t done anything on this issue.

They have this Save the Arctic campaign and they’ve been heavily criticized by Inuit: “Who are you to raise money and bring in revenue on campaigns around the arctic when you’ve put it at such risk.” They say they’re anti-oil but when you take away seal hunting, which is the only industry that the Inuit have that can compete with offshore oil, then how dare you criticize. So when this whole Sealfie campaign came up, they took this potentially really negative thing for their image and they turned it into this good news story: they are working with the indigenous people, look at how decolonized they are, they are all about reconciliation and they get to do this Save the Arctic campaign. It is what anti-sealing was thirty years ago, a very lucrative fundraising tactic. People are all about environmentalism now and climate change and they know the arctic is most affected.

Greenpeace sometimes does things, but it’s Inuit who are leading that fight. This whole Save the Arctic campaign has raised enormous amounts of money which haven’t been used properly. The fact that off-shore oil drilling is not the answer and we should be supporting the Inuit in the sealskin industry is such an opportunity to reverse the damage that they’ve done. I saw poster after poster, campaign after campaign in the last couple of years on the seismic testing issue go by and none of them address the seal hunting issue so I just really have a hard time believing they’ll actually do anything until people donating to them demand it. Right now I think they’ve kind of gotten the best of all the worlds. All they have to do is apologize and pity is not enough. They apologized and now they’ve gotten away with destroying our economy, putting our people in poverty and also getting the benefit of looking like they’re helping us without actually doing anything.

RF: For people who see this film or are just interested in the topic, what is the best way they can make a positive impact in helping indigenous people protect the sealskin trade?

AAB: Here in Europe people could write to their members of the European Parliament. We were actually told the parliamentarians need their own constituents to demand these changes. I think it’s really hard for politicians to stick their neck out and do something that people can easily criticize. If a politician advocates reversing a seal-hunting ban, the animal activists would attack them. Why would they risk their reelection on an issue that doesn’t affect their own people? So it really has to come from Europeans. Another thing would be to write to these groups like Greenpeace, IFAW, Sea Shepherd Society and say it’s not enough just to apologize. It’s not enough to say that your current policy is not against commercial sealing. You must actually work to get this legislation reversed. Replace it with something that reflects the reality that the majority of commercial sealers are Inuit. So, until that legislation is reversed, they’re not doing enough. Lastly, I think just as powerful as those first two options are to let celebrities that take part in these campaigns know and hold them accountable. If people just tweeted to them and said, “What about the Inuit?” That’s all it takes. Even if you can’t remember all the details and the arguments, just asking them about the Inuit is enough to complicate the issue for them and make it less attractive for celebrities to support anti-seal hunting campaigns, because then they get drawn into this debate of poor indigenous people versus animal welfare groups. They don’t want bad PR.

Check out the Angry Inuit website to support this cause.