To Defend the North: The EU Seal Ban in Review

Stephen Harper and cabinet munching seal meat. Photo: Office of the Prime Minister

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by Mark Stoller

I’ve recently compiled a small library of snippets taken from political speeches, press releases, and news items concerning Canadian “nordicity.”  Here’s a favourite from a 2008 address by Stephen Harper to an audience at Inuvik, NT.  For reference, Inuvik is located just above the 68th parallel:

“[W]e are a northern country.  The True North is our destiny, for our explorers, for our entrepreneurs, for our artists.  And to not embrace its promise now at the dawn of its ascendancy would be to turn our backs on what it is to be Canadian.”[1]

There are notable absurdities with this and similarly wide-ranging statements, not least of which is that Mr. Harper is here waxing North at a community composed largely of Dene, Métis, and Inuvialuit.  Also problematic is the paradoxical depiction of the North as both an essential and omnipresent quality of “being Canadian,” for which there nevertheless exists a mere window of opportunity to realize.  (Does northernness have an expiration date?)

Yet however backward and confounding such comments may appear, their use has historically been effective at winning popular support for northern development schemes, and for subsequently fostering popular belief that the North is in need of protection.  This “duty to defend” has usually fallen to the federal government of Canada.

Focusing on recent developments in the battle over the EU seal ban, I want to highlight an aspect of Canada’s Northern fascination that deflects attention from underlying and historical problems with how the North is commonly viewed in the Canadian south.

Early in 2009, the EU parliament announced plans to ban the import of commercial seal products.  The ban, facilitated in large part by animal rights activists, targeted commercial hunting in Atlantic Canada but inevitably affected subsistence hunters, such as Inuit. These hunters sold sealskins to buyers in Europe and relied on the income to resupply needed hunting equipment.  On behalf of the commercial industry, the Canadian government campaigned to refute criticism that the annual harvest was inhumane, and ultimately sued the EU through the World Trade Organization for violation of international trade rules.  Three weeks ago, Canada lost this challenge in an unusual ruling that cited “public moral concerns” as legitimate grounds for the EU decision.

In Canada, although Parliamentary debate centred on defense of the commercial hunt, federal officials publicly emphasized the ban’s impacts on Inuit and subsistence hunters.  As a kind of informal protest, then Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Stephen Harper flew separately to Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, Inuit communities located thousands of kilometers from commercial harvest sites.  To show support for Inuit, Jean and Harper posed for photographs of them eating seal meat, a traditional staple food of coastal Inuit society and culture.  In the ensuing months, Stephen Harper regularly defended the “traditional way of life” that was threatened by the EU ban.[2]

Former Governor General Jean eating seal meat, 2009
Michaëlle Jean at an Inuit community feast, May 2009. Photo: Toronto Star.

Yet notions of “tradition” and of subsistence hunting mask a history of abuse at the hands of Canadian officials, whose policies were primarily responsible for the coercion of “traditional” northern lifestyles and the introduction of economies based around settlement and wage labour.  Pre-contact Inuit, after all, would not have relied upon access to European markets.  The term subsistence, in this contemporary context, more accurately refers to the reliance upon foreign trade than it does to historical practices of survival and autonomy.  It also refers to how northern communities have been systematically brought into dependency upon the Canadian state.

The designation of protector of the North, for all intents and purposes, supplies the political vernacular for the federal government to act as the rightful arbiter of northern affairs.  Necessarily, state-sponsored northern expansion assumes an air of beneficence, one laden with contradictory language of protecting fragile ecosystems while simultaneously proffering inchoate industrial development programs in order to “stand up” for northern communities.  The defense of “subsistence” lifestyles effectively redefines the term by locating “tradition” within the discursive parameters of Canadian “nordicity” and the cultural purview of the federal government.  Inuit traditions are cast within the context of Euro-Canadian traditions.

The defense of the North cannot be separated from a continuing history of territorial expansion and efforts to legitimize state-sponsored development initiatives, particularly in the post-war period.  Infamously, in the mid-1950s federal officials “defended” the north by relocating seventeen Inuit families from northern Quebec to the high Arctic, along the way nurturing perceptions of Inuit hunters as wanton slaughterers of local wildlife, and ultimately using them in a broader project of “showing the flag” to assert Canada’s sovereignty there.[3]  In 1970, Canada used threats of ecological degradation to gain “functional jurisdiction” over the Northwest Passage, a response to the prospect of increased tanker traffic in the region.  Arguing that the federal government alone possessed the ability to act as environmental steward and protector of indigenous communities on the front lines of industrial development, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government used these rights to increase its stake in anticipated oil and gas development throughout the Arctic Archipelago.

It is noteworthy that discussions of the North often centre on the region’s susceptibility to global and international developments, with less attention paid to the political implications of Canadian south-north interactions.  Climate change, Arctic sovereignty, and resource development for global trade dominate discussions in the national media and help to cultivate a broader sense that the North is, strangely, a foreign place.  While popular discourse on the North remains grounded in issues of environmental use and protection, current global developments are not themselves the source of many of the challenges facing Northern communities.  Often overlooked are the ways in which popular knowledge of the North is cultivated in and for people of the Canadian South; this knowledge helps establish a credible basis for government intervention into northern affairs, and contributes to political support for economic development projects.  It is tempting to view the fast-changing Arctic through lenses of global change, but we needn’t be so far reaching.

Whether through ecological conservation or protecting “traditional” lifestyles, defending the North means increasing state influence over regional affairs.  Appeals to broad and ambiguous notions of North have been nurtured by the current Prime Minister, more so than any of his predecessors.  He has made mighty pronouncements of the need to protect Arctic waterways, to preserve the North’s environmental heritage, to redress social ills through resource extraction programs.  But through discourses of nordicity, Stephen Harper has also tapped into a longstanding and comfortable sense that the North is a mysterious and magical place, one that needs protection, but that is ultimately kept at a familiar distance from the south.  It is on us, I think, to question this distance.


[1] Stephen Harper, “Prime Minister Harper announces the John G. Diefenbaker icebreaker project,” Inuvik NT, 28 August 2008.  Available online at:

[2] Government of Canada, “Canada’s Seal Hunt.” Available online at:

[3] Tester, F. and P. Kulchyski.  Tammarniit (Mistakes): Inuit Relocation in the Eastern Arctic, 1939-63. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994.

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Mark Stoller

I research past and current resource exploration in Canada's North, with a particular interest in how hydrocarbon development in the northern regions is impacted by southern perceptions. My dissertation explores oil and gas development projects dating back to the late 1960s, and looks specifically at pipeline proposals, inquiries, and debates as sites of knowledge production and contested social power.

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