BOOKS: Animal Rights & Human Rights: Ecology, Economy and Ideology in the Canadian Arctic

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1993:

Animal Rights Human Rights: Ecology,
Economy and Ideology in the Canadian
Arctic, by George Wenzel. 1991. 206 pages,
paperback. University of Toronto Press.
Animal Rights Human Rights author George
Wenzel, says the back cover, “is an anthropologist and geo-
grapher,” who has been working among the Inuit (Eskimos)
of Baffin Island since 1972. His book “is both a careful aca-
demic study and a disturbing comment on how environmen-
tal activity may oppress a whole society.” To wit, Wenzel
supposedly shows how anti-seal hunt protesters’ “own cul-
tural prejudices and questionable ecological imperatives
brought hardship, distress, and instability to an ecologically
balanced traditional culture.”

But there are really two books here: Wenzel’s
most recent of many impassioned arguments that Inuits
should be allowed to sell as many seal pelts as they wish, a
case he has pursued since 1978, and the body of evidence
he assembles as a scholar and historian. The body of evi-
dence suggests that Wenzel the analyst is heavily biased by
personal identification with his subjects, to the point of dis-
playing cultural bias at least as extreme as that of the
activists he lambastes. While Wenzel accuses animal rights
advocates of first lauding a native lifestyle they don’t under-
stand and then turning against it because of squeamishness
about killing animals, it is he himself who most clearly mis-
represents the native lifestyle. He documents that far from
being ecologically balanced, the Inuit economy has been in
flux for at least as long as Caucasians have been involved,
due to shifting demand for pelts, changing government poli-
cies, and the arrival of new technology. He establishes that
the Inuit rarely hunted seals for money before the mid-
1950s, and that commercial sealing evolved mainly as a
means of getting the wherewithal to buy and maintain rifles,
snowmobiles, and power boats. Then he argues that a seal-
ing-centered cash economy not even 40 years old is “tradi-
tional,” because the Inuit have traditionally hunted seals at
some times of year for meat. He ultimately draws his defin-
ition of a traditional lifestyle so broadly that it could equally
apply to the life of an English factory worker, whose ances-
tors participated in the Industrial Revolution at about the
same time the Hudson’s Bay Company came to the Arctic.
Along the way, Wenzel pointedly ignores how despite the
efforts of anti-seal hunt leaders to avoid harming natives
who hunt adult ringed seals for food, a total ban on sealskin
imports by the European Communnity became necessary to
stop the slaughter of baby harp seals in Atlantic Canada
because the Canadian government insisted on hiding behind
native need in attempting to perpetuate harp sealing.
Similarly, the Canadian government has tried to defend the
entire fur trapping industry as essential to the native econo-
my, though natives account for only about 5% of Canadian
trapped fur production, and the Yukon and Alaskan govern-
ments still try to camoflauge wolf massacres undertaken to
benefit trophy hunters as projects to help natives to feed
themselves. Natives including Inuit are hit by economic
shrapnel because they allow themselves to be used.
Fortunately, as Wenzel also documents, job creation in the
Arctic is at last moving away from wildlife exploitation.
More Inuit are getting an education. Perhaps eventually the
Inuit will achieve overdue economic justice: a fair share of
the benefits from oil and mineral development, Arctic ship-
ping, and satellite communication stations. One suspects,
though, that it won’t be with any help from Wenzel, who
will still be trying to keep them in a frontier limbo between
prehistory and the present. ––Merritt Clifton
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