The killing floes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 April, 2005, 12:00am

It is the great Canadian anomaly. We are church-going, peace-keeping, tree-hugging people. We care for our sick and elderly, march against war, house the homeless, welcome refugees and worry about the ozone layer. Then, every spring, something snaps, and we head out on to the ice floes off Newfoundland and kill tens of thousands of baby seals.

I know, I know, we do not all do it, just a few thousand seafarers. And I know, they are only seals; there are millions of them; the fishermen need the money; it is only a 'cull'; and by killing the seals we are helping to restore the cod fishery. And isn't it hypocritical of the rest of the meat-eating, resource-wasting world to preach to us?

Yes. But then you watch the video of the men on the ice swinging gaffs called hakapiks, and the argument becomes elemental. Something inside recoils; it feels ugly. This is not a livestock slaughterhouse, a battery-chicken farm or a bullfight. It is calculated carnage, by large men with sharp weapons. The seal pups are being hunted for fur - each coat is worth C$55 ($353). They are in demand again in Europe, and the market dictates morality.

Actually, it is not a hunt at all. The seal cubs sit on the ice, enjoying the first sunlight of their lives, and wait for the men with clubs to come to them. If they are lucky, they are killed with the first blow. If not, they are skinned alive, or left to drown with a wounding gunshot. The money the fishermen make represents 5 per cent of their annual income.

The seal hunt is an old story, but what is new this year is the intensity of the Canadian counterattack. It is quickly becoming part of the culture war. Newspapers are livid about the 'limousine liberals' who make the annual pilgrimage to the Gulf of St Lawrence to witness, and deplore, the hunt. Just to rub it in, the Montreal Gazette published a recipe for seal-flipper pie.

The Globe and Mail said that the animal-rights protesters are 'misguided', and infatuated with the animals. Its highest-profile columnist, Newfoundlander Rex Murphy, savaged the critics. Murphy knows a phony when he sees one, and he swings a mean hakapik himself. After flaying the 'lubricious' Brigitte Bardot, who did not make it this year, he insulted every celebrity in the anti-hunt campaign. They are only in it to pep up their flagging careers, he said.

Meanwhile, out on the ice, a Canadian coastguard cutter almost rammed a protest boat that got too close to the action. The protesters are trying to organise a worldwide boycott of Canadian seafood. They will fail, but hopefully, they will convince a few more Canadians that the seal hunt is absurd, obscene and indefensible.