Crédit photo: Natalie M.
For decades, the Canadian government, the hunters, and the fur industry have assured us that the commercial seal hunt went on without violence or cruelty. However, many observers having witnessed the horrors of this biggest slaughter of marine mammals in the world tell a different story. They return very upset and with a strong conviction to end the commercial hunt. Senator Mac Harb, after having spent time as an observer, is trying to pass a law to stop it. Deputy Carl Schlyter, after having observed the hunt in 2006, returned to Europe to put a European Union boycott on all seal- derived products. Here’s another touching testimony from an observer.
Natalie M. lived in the Magdalene Islands between 1998 and 2001. She is not originally from there and had never been there as a tourist before her stay there for her work. Natalie M. prefers to keep the name of her employer anonymous, since it has no connection to her testimony which she is giving.
You witnessed the seal hunt?
Yes.In March of 2001 I had a chance to fly aboard a Coast Guard helicopter. We flew over the ice floes as well as the area the seals were, to then land back down onto the Coast Guard’s ice-breaker. Not long after, we joined up with 4 or 5 small groups of sealers in full action.
How were the sealers acting?
I had already been told how this activity went on, but to see it with my own eyes was a very traumatizing experience. The babies are small and can barely move around. It is those that are killed first in front of their screaming mothers. Once the babies are isolated, it’s easy to kill it with a hakapik. But, contrarily to what I was told, one well placed hit is not always enough to kill the animal without suffering. In their haste and anticipation of killing the biggest amount possible, I saw hunters hit seals 2 and 3 times in a row. All the while, the animal screams and writhes in pain. About 4 or 5 hunters gather around the same group of young seals and it seemed evident that it was a contest to see who could bring back the most skins to the boats at the end of the day. Because, at that moment, only the skins mattered to them. The rest of the animals were left on site after having been skinned directly on the ice with lots of stabs and slashes of knives. When I saw a seal still moving after having his skin removed, I left the bridge of where we were observing the scene and I did not return. I was later told that it was probably from a « swimming reflex » and that the animal was indeed dead when it was skinned, but I’ll never forget that horrible sight.
What was the atmosphere like in the Magdalene Islands during the hunt?
The atmosphere was celebratory, because the seal hunt is a sign of sorts that the season to start fishing lobster is approaching. According to my personal observations, many sealers are also lobster fishermen and use the same boats for the two activities. It’s a matter of leaving the torpidity of winter and to get their boats back in the water. But I also heard them constantly complaining about the lowering prices of the skins, and of the activity of animal welfare groups, which according to them, prevents them from working and hurts their image. Also, they complained about the lack of popularity of « sea-wolf » meat (that is the name they use for seals). However, according to the opinion of certain Madeleiners, that meat does not really taste good.
Have you observed seals outside of the hunt?
I had the chance to go on the ice-barrier with American tourists in 2001. It was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. The vastness of the ice-barrier, hundreds of seals around us, the great punctuated silence of the cries of the babies who are hungry. The mothers who enter and leave the holes in the ice with the speed of lightning that we can see swimming, it was quite simply magical. The visions of horror from the hunters fortunately did not succeed in tarnishing these invaluable memories. For this observational activity, groups of tourists come from as far away as Europe and Asia. Few Magdeleners and Quebecers treat themselves to this luxury since the spaces are extremely limited and the days where the temperature and the conditions of ice permit observations are rare. During certain springs, it is completely impossible. But when the season is good, it is a touristic godsend in this normally dead season. While the tourists rave about the ice-barrier and take thousands of pretty photographs, a few kilometres from there, the hunters continue their work, but one makes sure that the tourists never lay their eyes on the scenes of slaughter. I was confused to see the paradox of this seal hunting season. On the one side the horror of hunting and the other, the warm welcome made to the fortunate tourists, these two worlds never crossing.
What other experience did you go thru among the seals?
In the summer, at the peak of the tourist season, we went in closely to see a colony of seals and to swim very close to them at Corps Mort, the name given to a small island near Cap-Au-Meules. People go there in groups of about a dozen on a Zodiac-type boat. At this location, there were a hundred seals and we could swim among them, wearing our fins (ce que veut dire »palmes » dans ce cas), mask and snorkel. They were not frightened at all of our presence and my sister was even able to touch one underwater. Taking a pause on the rocks, we heard cries which attracted our curiosity. We approached and saw 3 seals, who were also on the rocks in the sun. They seemed very weak because their skin was riddled with small bullet holes. They seemed to have been caused by small calibre firearms or even by small lead projectiles from rifles. We were shocked by this discovery and asked one of the guides what it could be. We received a vague response to the effect of « probably some kids who were having fun and target practicing« , which seemed rather normal to him.
In the islands, is there a kind of Omerta law preventing anyone from openly speaking out against the commercial hunt?
As of my arrival, I understood that it is unimaginable for a Magdelener to be against hunting. It is a taboo subject, in the sense that one must simply just not talk about it. That is how it is done, and that’s the way it is. As for the « foreigners » like me, they are quickly told that « they cannot understand » because they are not Madeleiners.
What do you think about the movie Phoques, Le film, by Raoul Jomphe?
I think it is an awkward attempt at rehabilitating the reputation of the seal hunters. Mr Jomphe paints a naive picture of a people without stains or reproach that only want to assert « their right to predation« , like a Magdelener says in the movie. Phoques only shows one side of the commercial hunt and literally drowns us in numerous statistics and studies which only support the defenders of this hunt. Never is the chance to speak given to a representative of the opponents. Animal activists are portrayed as cranks, clowns and people without open minds. In my opinion this movie is big publicity for Magdaleners who are still trying to convince Quebecers, Canadians and the rest of the world how well-founded their barbaric and completely archaic hunt is.
Remarks collected by Marjolaine Jolicoeur – firstname.lastname@example.org