Chris Windeyer

Why Tanya Tagaq’s middle finger was the right call

Despite a global focus on the arctic, northerners can’t seem to win

On EDGE: Opinion

First off, Tanya Tagaq’s is a challenging and unorthodox record. As a music fan, I’m glad it’s getting widespread attention in a world harried by too much bland pop. The woman can use her voice as a substitute for about four different instruments, and I’m glad it won the Polaris Prize last week.

The well-publicized Toronto gala also gave her the platform to defend seal hunting as an inalienable right of Inuit, to a large number of people who have likely never heard the matter addressed by an Inuk. Oh and by the way, as reported in Nunatsiaq News and around the globe, “Fuck PETA.”

In case you missed it, here’s the acceptance speech:

For Tagaq, the issue is also personal. She was the target last year of a firehose of unhinged rage for posting a photo on Twitter of her baby next to a dead seal. Some people, not understanding how federalism works, demanded the Canadian government take her child away from her, a particularly tone-deaf sentiment, considering the legacy of residential schools and the CD Howe in the North. She got death threats for doing what’s normal and healthy for Northern families: heading out on the land together and hunting.

That the moral case against hunting seals falls down the second you apply an iota of rational thought to the issue has never mattered to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. That even goes for the commercial Atlantic harp seal hunt, which takes roughly 250,000 animals from a population of 7.7 million, according to a 2012 survey by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. That hunt, undertaken in rural outports in Newfoundland, the Maritimes and Quebec, is the real target of PETA, because nothing screams ostentatious wealth like “East Coast fisherman.”

Indeed, PETA’s lame, flailing response to Tagaq’s remarks puts it thusly: “Our fight is—and always has been—against the East Coast commercial slaughter, which is run by white people who bilk Canadians for millions in tax dollars in order to prop up the non-existent seal trade.”

It might be tempting to dismiss such ravings as inconsequential. But PETA, alongside two other vocal anti-sealing groups, the Humane Society of the United States and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, have been extraordinarily successful in winning an import ban for seal products at the European Union.

They’ll point to an exemption for Inuit seal products as proof of their sensitivity to indigenous people. But it doesn’t matter: the market for seal products has been destroyed. The value of pelt sales alone has dropped from $500,000 in 2007, to under $300,000 today, according to the Nunavut government’s fisheries and sealing division. This is presented by PETA et al as a natural function of the free market, but it’s a situation that’s been created deliberately. These groups have a real impact on how Northerners live.

The Arctic, we are so often told, is in the global spotlight more than ever before. That should have its advantages, but lately it seems that Northerners in general and Inuit in particular just can’t win. As in: Sorry guys, we know you didn’t cause climate change but you can’t hunt polar bears anymore. Everyone should eat locally sourced food! Oh, not you guys. We find it distasteful.

For most of post-contact history, the Arctic has been either an afterthought or a sideshow in some larger geopolitical struggle. This is why Tanya Tagaq’s challenge to PETA was so refreshing. When is the last time a Northerner took a southern stage and told their tormentors so directly to get bent? Seal hunting is a central element of Inuit culture, and to PETA, that simply does not matter. An extended middle finger was the only sensible response.