Disclaimer: The following is an interview completed in December 2021 by Dr. Danita Catherine Burke, founder of Women in the Arctic and Antarctic, as part of her research project “Amending the EU Seal Product Ban” funded by the J.R. Smallwood Foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies. This interview aims to provide an alternative perspective to anti-sealing narratives and to make information compiled during Dr. Burke’s research project publicly accessible. The views in this interview do not represent the Women in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Seal hunting is a subject that many people think they know a fair amount about, despite many individuals not being from a culture that practices sealing or even from a culture that has active sealing practices within it (Lowe, 2008; Allen, 1979). Dispute about sealing date to the 1950s, but it exploded in 1964 after a documentary, “Les grands phoques de la banquise (Seals of the Floes)”, produced by Artek Films and aired by CBC, which showed images of a sealer in Quebec’s Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence allegedly skinning a whitecoat harp seal alive. The film falsely portraying this cruel act as standard sealing practice (CBC Radio, 1965), despite it later being revealed that the individual committed this act because he was paid by the German film crew to do so that way (Îles de la Madeleine, 2021). Since the documentary, protesting organisations and anti-sealing supporters routinely state their belief that seals are skinned alive (e.g. Millar, 2001); a narrative that the CBC documentary made commonplace.
Under-represented in the discussion about sealing is the perceptive of sealers, which is often dismissed, ignored or misrepresented (Burke, 2021). The cultures and peoples are largely omitted from discussions about their heritage, cultural practices and future and are stigmatized by characterizations as antiquated barbaric slaughters (Patey, 1990; Troake, 2004; Burke, 2020). In contrast, the perceptive that sealing is morally wrong dominates public discourse (European Commission 2019a; 2019b; Essemlali and Watson, 2013), but the moralizing has encouraged violence against dehumanized sealers such as threats to kidnap and skin alive their children and grandchildren (CBC The Broadcast with Jane Adey, 2021; Standing Committee, on Fisheries and Oceans, 2006; also see Felsberg, 1985; CBC, 2005a; 2005b).
This interview is with Mr. James Winter founding president of the Canadian Sealers Association. Winter is a Newfoundlander. He was a writer/broadcaster with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and co-hosted a number of programs including “The Fisherman’s Broadcast” based in Newfoundland and Labrador. Later Winter worked in the Canadian civil service for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and he also worked for an international fishing company headquartered in Newfoundland. While a journalist he won the award as “best writer radio” from the Association of Canadian Radio and Television Artists (ACTRA). As a journalist, Winter also investigated and reported on the hunt and the protests against it. He became a licensed sealer and conducted participant observation of the seal hunt off the coast of Newfoundland in 1977 and 1978.
What Winter experienced while reporting on sealing changed his life. It opened his eyes to the widespread intolerance against minority sealing cultures in Canada, the growing disconnect between urban communities and rural areas and cultural roots, and the rapid expansion of the activist industry. As the below interview illustrates, Winter has focused much of his life to trying to re-inject nuance and cultural sensitive and awareness into the highly charged, and what he views as the largely one-sided, global debate on seal hunting and sealing cultures.
Where are you from and what is your personal connection to seal hunting?
I was born and raised in St. John’s and like many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians with no attachment to the fishery I only had a general awareness of sealing and the role it played in our society from the early settlement years to the present. I had read “Death on the Ice” and a few other articles about sealing but that was about it. I was also generally aware of the anti-sealing stuff that started up in the late 1950s and grew over the next couple of decades, but I didn’t have a deep understanding of the issue at first.
That all changed in 1977 when I was co-host on CBC’s “Morning Show” as part of a team which included myself, Jim Wellman, John Dalton, John Foster, and Judy Arnott. After reading a particular nasty piece in a newspaper we discussed sealing and decided that many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were like us and did not know much about the realities of being a sealer in this era. We decided to do a radio series based on the daily life of a sealer. Somehow I got designated to be the person in the field and experience the daily life of the sealer.
It took a while to get any sealing captain to trust us as most people involved in the sealing industry mistrusted, with good reason, all media. Eventually a sealing captain agreed to take me as a crewman provided I was licensed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and signed the ships “articles”. With that done I was signed on by Captain Ulf Snarby of the Arctic Explorer. That spring at the ice I was an active sealer and reported my activities daily to Jim Wellman in the studio via Ship-to-Shore Radio and it was broadcast each morning for a few weeks.
The next year, 1978, CBC National asked me to go again because they were expecting serious protests. I went as a licensed sealer again. There is limited space on the boat and as they operate on a share system missing one contributor would make a difference to all the crew in terms of pay. I took no pay from the ship when I went out on the ice hunting because I was being paid by the CBC, so my sealing work went to the community pot, so to speak. That year I ran the “whipline” so that I would not be away from the ship for more than 30 to 60 minutes at a time unlike the previous year when I was on the ice from dawn to dusk. This way I could report back to CBC what was happening with the Greenpeace crowd and other protesters with the shortest possible delay.
The experiences made me realize that the anti-sealing organisations were more like corporations than charities and they were having a devastating effect on sealers as a people; psychologically, emotionally, economically and culturally. It changed me from being an observer to being an activist. Following that decision I never reported on sealing again as my journalistic objectivity was gone. Later in Newfoundland we formed the Canadian Sealers Association and I was elected as founding president. I also joined the Association des Chasseurs de Phoques des Isles-de-la-Madeleine. To the present day I am a campaigner against the anti-sealing animal rights corporations and their international propaganda campaigns against Canadian sealing.
How important do you think sealing has been, both culturally and economically, to the peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the Quebec North Shore, Magdalen Islands and the Canadian Arctic more broadly?
Sealing was a key, an integral, part of the settlement and evolution of people in coastal Newfoundland and Labrador, the Magdalen Islands, the Quebec North Shore, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. There is an old saying in Newfoundland which sums up the role of sealing in most coastal communities: king cod and queen seal. Nature in these areas is harsh and in order to survive one needs success in a variety of employments to make a living and sealing was one of them.
Initially sealing was on foot when the ice floes blew on to the shore or from small boats based in the community. Later the market for seal oil and skins attracted large firms to the trade and it evolved from an artisan activity to a commercial one. Large commercial vessels carried large crews of individual sealers to the seal “patches” increasing the annual kill creating a successful export industry. These sealers undertook the dangerous work because they were paid a share in cash. A successful trip and you made money but a failed trip and you got no pay. This is known by economists as the “co-adventure principle”.
People sealed for generations because of the “hungry month of March” that plagued their lives. The cash in hand gave some independence from the “truck system” that dominated village life. The truck system is an economic system wherein one is tied to a village merchant who carries credit and pays in script. He sets the price of goods and the price you receive for your products and labour. This system dominated life in the sealing communities for hundreds of years.
Sealing not only helped people through the harsh times of the late winter and early spring, but because of the cash in hand a limited sense of independence was created. It also created an emotional attachment to the actions of the men who risked their lives for their families and their community. Out of sealing sprang the songs, the stories, the literature, and the self-identification that celebrated the people, the successes, the disasters, and the deaths – of which there were many – that were at the core of sealing and of village life: the culture of the society.
How did you become involved in the efforts to protect sealers during the anti-sealing movement?
I became involved due to my exposure as a journalist to the realities of the vicious propaganda campaigns attacking basically defenceless rural people. The mainly American headquartered multi-million dollar anti-sealing corporations played the media though “stunts” and “factoids.” They created the image for urban peoples of “sealers” as part of barbaric societies and that caused very real hurt. What I witnessed made me think seriously about what was happening. Mercenary ego driven corporations creating a fallacy that enjoyed the support of careless, if not deliberately misleading, journalism sold to a worldwide urban audience. Many of us felt we needed to defend ourselves against the calumnies being spread. But how? We had no money and no organization, and no interest in our story from the media. From these thoughts came the Canadian Sealers Association and the Sealers Association in the Magdalen Islands.
Since the early 1980s, I, and many others, have been active campaigners, writers, and activists; activities which help us to counter the propaganda of the anti-sealing corporations within governments, institutions and individuals. While we have had some slight success, it must be admitted that once propaganda has insinuated itself into the core of societies and institutions, it is extremely hard to eliminate. Many minorities can testify to that fact. What drives us to continue our activities to protect our sealing culture and communities is that dignity demands we stand up for ourselves.
From your perspective, what do you think is the legacy of the anti-sealing movement? And why do you think anti-sealing activism became such a global phenomenon?
I would say that the legacy is the selective use of language and images to convince urbanites, and even some rural peoples, that sealers are barbarians; that we lacked their understanding of civilization. Seals were portrayed as different from other animals to convey that only ignorant people could kill them. All the “factoids” peddled about sealing caused people to condemn sealers and our families and communities as subhuman.
The legacy of the anti-sealing activists is that emotional propaganda defeats facts, that ignorance trumps knowledge, and that media can be manipulated to become your PR arm. For sealers and their families the victimization exists every day. We are unlikely to see any change in this attitude while governments, institutions, individuals, and media accept fiction over fact.
Activists have also tapped into the celebrity culture that dominates western society. They get ‘stars’ to endorse their messages and thus be seen as the ‘good guy’. Combine all these tactics and you have created a climate for international success. That is what happened and continues to happen to this day. Thus the anti-sealing campaign was designed for international success. Its focus was, and still is, on an undeniably cute young white harp seals despite the fact that we have not killed whitecoats since the early 1980s: the Bambi syndrome. The fact that sealing takes place in far-away communities and the many people involved are mostly descendants of European immigrants made sealers an easy target. Anti-sealing corporations attempted to sell the idea that they were not against “Indigenous” non-commercial sealing. This politically correct meaningless distinction failed as the Indigenous market collapsed despite the fact they did not hunt “whitecoats”. The impact on Indigenous communities was huge as most had fewer options than other sealers to replace the lost activity and income.
What attitudes, actions and/or behaviours by anti-sealing activists and organisations left the strongest impression on you from the height of the protests between the late 1960s to mid-1980s?
From the beginning the anti-sealing movement focused on Newfoundland and Labrador despite the fact that the activities which motivated their attacks and the images they used originated in Quebec: the Artek film and the book Murder Island. The anti-sealing corporations fully understood the political and cultural reality in Canada towards Newfoundland and Labrador as the new province versus the established province of Quebec. Also in Canada this was the era of the ‘Newfie joke’ and the establishment of the concept of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as being stupid, redneck, and somehow not deserving of being considered as “Canadian”. As a tactic it worked for a couple of decades helping the propaganda to influence Canadian, and to a degree international, thought.
Later the focus changed and the attacks were made on “The Canadian Seal Hunt” as it was recognized that by using this strategy there was a better chance in gaining broader support. By this point most Canadians did not want to be associated with or condemned by association with sealing because of the propaganda and what they thought of as the Newfoundland seal hunt and not the Canadian seal hunt. This tactic allows the anti-sealing corporations to focus on obtaining support from foreign governments and thus putting pressure on the Canadian government(s). The internationalizing of the propaganda campaign was necessary in order to raise awareness and increase the money raised and the influence with foreign governments.
The “bans” that emanated from this tactic have almost destroyed the industry and the cultures of the people involved. One might posit that Canadian government(s) – politicians and bureaucrats – are not upset with this result as it absolves them of making a decision, which would probably have negative electoral results.
The lives, cultures and economic realities of the various peoples involved in Canadian sealing had no significance to individuals, anti-sealing corporations or foreign governments and media.
Once it was demonstrated that massive amounts of money could be raised through the anti-sealing campaigning many more animal rights corporations jumped on the bandwagon but essentially the most influential in terms of damaging the lives of the citizens of sealing communities was, and still is, IFAW.
The anti-sealing campaign is the most successful propaganda campaign of the last 80 plus years. It has nothing to do with conservation or humane killing, despite propaganda to the contrary. The killing methods – hakapik/club or gunshot – have constantly been found to meet the standards of any animal killing in Canada, the USA, the UK, and Europe and many other countries. The population of harp seals has grown from about 2 plus million in the 1950s to just under 8 million animals today.
In my opinion, it has always been about money and ego. Millions of dollars have been raised by anti-sealing corporations to destroy sealing in Canada. The media is culpable for failing to challenge the propaganda in order to raise profits and ratings. They also fed the egos of previously unknown individuals making them stars at the expense of science and facts.
With perhaps the exception of Inuit hunting in the Arctic region, Newfoundland and Labrador is the part of Canada most associated with sealing. When debate against sealing started in the 1950s and protests in the 1960s, it was only a very short time after Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949. Culturally, the practice of hunting seals in Newfoundland and Labrador dates back centuries, first by Indigenous hunters and later by non-Indigenous peoples starting around the 1600s. To what extent to you think the perception of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians as distinct and foreigners, or others, in Canada influenced the anti-sealing activism?
For the most part the local people looked upon these intruders with a wary eye, astonishment and found them a bit ridiculous. They certainly had no fear of them. Once when a car full of protesters either broke down or ran out of gas near St. Anthony on a bitterly cold evening some locals sorted things out for them so the protesters could get back to the comfort of their hotel. I think that about sums up how they were perceived in most rural Newfoundland communities at first. After the book Murder Island and the Artek film I am not sure how they were perceived in the Madeleine Islands. As time passed and people realised what was happening they began to resent the attacks and the lack of meaningful support from their elected representatives.
Rural and isolated communities like St. Anthony on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula were inundated with protestors, especially in the 1970s-1980s. How do you think the anti-sealing activism affected rural and isolated communities, sealers, their families, and societies? Did you ever witness acts of violence (e.g. cultural, psychological and physical) during the protests?
Psychological, emotional and cultural violence was at the core of the anti-sealing activities from Day One. Their tactic was, and is, to use language to dehumanize sealers and sealing communities, to deprive them of respect in Canada and abroad and to paint them as barbarians or sub-humans as only that kind of person could kill a seal. For decades those of us identified as sealers or pro-sealing were subjected to verbal and written violence. These incidents came in the form of phone calls and letters. In the internet years this type of thing became much more common and the content much more violent. The internet also provided the anti-sealing corporations with the means to spread their propaganda to a much wider audience, lessoning their dependence on “stunts” to attract the media. Today a search on the web will turn up all kinds of misleading images and words – most of them decades old – which continue to perpetrate the myths that the anti-sealing corporations have been preaching since the 1950s.
Physical violence by the anti-sealing folks was not all that common. Greenpeace were the first to engage in physical violence followed by Sea Sheppard Society. Much more violence was threatened but for the most part police intervention curtailed such incidents. I was about a mile from the Greenpeace physical violence on the ice at the “front” and spoke to the sealers who were attacked but that is as close as I came to the physical violence
In 2006 you provided testimony to a Canadian parliamentary Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans on sealing (Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, 2006). In your testimony, you noted that during your earlier work trying to help local sealers and communities you received death threats against yourself and your family. Specifically you reference receiving anonymous threats to kidnap and skin your children alive when they were young because you practice and support sealing. How often and in what form (e.g. letters, calls, in person) did you receive these types of threats and what impact did it have on you and your family?
I, and many others, did receive threats of injury or death and even threats to skin our children alive to see how a “mommy” seal felt. We did report much of this but the police found tracking down the authors of these missives proved to be impossible. Over the years myself and others have had face to face confrontations with protesters and while these were not pleasant we did not retaliate and the confrontations were limited to them yelling and screaming of insults of all kinds at us. As I said, they were not pleasant experiences but they also were not physical fights.
These confrontations made us resentful that we had almost no way to defend ourselves, as the media simply had no interest in tackling what should have been a ‘story’. Most of us felt, and feel, that the media became the PR arm of these propagandists and enabled them to spread their message to a worldwide audience.
What role do you think the media played in the anti-sealing movement and how it was portrayed to peoples who have little to no first-hand knowledge or connection to sealers, seal hunting and sealing cultures?
The media – national and international – knew little or nothing of the issues. What they did know was that if Greenpeace, or some other anti-sealing corporation, was involved then they were the good guys and we were the bad guys. They also knew their market, which was urbanites far removed from us and our culture, for whom having mostly destroyed their own connection to nature reacted blindly to the media portrait handed to them in the newspapers, TV and radio to make themselves feel good, feel like they were saving nature. We were the perfect target to increase media sales/ratings; a small group of people who nobody knew anything about and who were, in most cases, descendants of European settlers. Occasionally there were some attempts by the media to present both sides of the issue but by and large this was simply “ass covering”. To be fair there were a few, though very few, journalists who did cover the story realistically but their impact was minimal.
What impact to you think the EU seal import bans on the basis of moral objections against sealing practices have on sealing cultures, sealers and their families and communities?
The first ban in the USA back in the early 1970s really did not have much impact as we did not have much of a market in that country. What market there was, they could fill with their own sealing activities.
The ‘whitecoat’ ban in Europe in the early 1980s had a significant impact on all sealing in Canada whether it involved whitecoats or not. The reason was the customs authorities in Europe found it difficult to implement this ban thus banning almost all seal products. The biggest impact from that ban was felt by the Indigenous sealers of Canada’s Arctic even though they did not hunt whitecoats. Their industry collapsed and unlike sealers in the rest of Canada they had fewer options to fall back on. Therefore the social, economic and cultural consequences were extremely serious.
The second EU ban basically outlawed all Canadian seal product exports into the EU. The impact was very negative for all sealers in Canada. The market all but disappeared. There was an “exemption” for seals killed by Inuit sealers but it was meaningless as the customs people and the buyers simply could not cope with determining the origins of the products. Essentially the EU was our most important market and propaganda, venal EU politicians and bureaucrats, and media destroyed it for their own ends, their own purposes.
Until I read the WTO (World Trade Organization) ruling on the legitimacy of the EU sealing ban I was not aware the WTO were in the morality business. Naively I though they ruled on trade issues based upon a clear set of rules and not on moral issues. Basically they found that the EU sealing ban was not legitimate but they felt an obligation to uphold it to protect the morals of EU citizens. George Orwell would love that phrasing and logic.
There is a potential market for seal products in China but the anti-sealing corporations are active there. Sadly, they may succeed in destroying the budding Chinese market too if it grows. The same applies to any other country that sees potential in producing products from seals killed in Canada.
How would you like to see the discussion about sealing, sealing cultures, the sealing industry, bans and boycotts of sealing products and activism against sealing evolve going forward?
The reality is that the decades of propaganda has insinuated itself in the public consciousness in North America, Europe, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, some of whom conduct seal hunts and, or, import seal products. There is nothing harder to do than convince people that implanted propaganda is just that: propaganda.
Nothing I have said in the past nor anything I can say now will be able to change the fact that many Canadian politicians and bureaucrats wish that the sealing issue would simply fade away. They cover it up with smoke and mirrors but that is the basic fact.
This is best understood by the comments some Foreign Affairs senior bureaucrats from Canadian embassies in Europe said to me in Bonn back in the early 1980s: Mr. Winter you simply do not understand that this sealing controversy occupies too much of our time and interferes with our real work. I worked for Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO, for 5 years and spent a lot of time in Ottawa. Throughout the senior management of DFO, Foreign Affairs, and the International Trade Departments there was a noticeable negative vibe in relation to sealing. Nothing overt like what was said to me in Bonn, but it was there. It must also be said that within DFO there were people who understood the issue but their influence was never big enough to have an impact.
In my opinion, decades of mismanagement of the issue of sealing by our government(s), and the amplification of the anti-sealing perspectives by national and international media, has likely ensured that anti-sealing corporations will get their wish and Canadian sealing will slowly fade. As the saying goes, to the victor goes the ‘spoils’. The victors here are the multi-million dollar anti-sealing animal rights corporations, so it will be interesting to see how long the ‘spoils’ keep adding to their balance sheets and their egos will be stroked by media when the issue is no longer newsworthy. I would hazard a guess and say even with an artisanal seal hunt the propaganda will continue and continue to be effective as the audience is willfully blind. The money will continue to roll in and the egos will continue to be stroked.
Eventually the Canadian seal hunt will become more like the artisanal hunt it was years ago. Canadian politicians and the bureaucrats will still have to deal with the propaganda about it and it will continue interfering with what they see as their real work and the media will continue to find negative stories about us sealers to propagate, as bad news sells and good news is no news.
Canadian sealers will continue to seal and seal products will continue to be made and marketed, but incomes will be diminished and all the people will live with the legacy of the 80 plus years of vile propaganda. They will shrug it off saying: we know who and what we are despite your best efforts to defame us.
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Note: The photos used in this piece were provided by James Winter, the copyright holder.