Swinging Canadian elections keeps the sealers swinging clubs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2008:
Swinging Canadian elections keeps the sealers swinging clubs
Commentary by Merritt Clifton

Thirty years ago, when I first wrote
about the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt as a rural
Quebec newspaper reporter, both the hunt and
protests against it already seemed to have gone
on forever–but I had hopes that the efforts of
Brigitte Bardot and Paul Watson would soon end
it. Bardot brought global celebrity status to
the campaign; Watson had just introduced the
then new tactic of actually confronting the
sealers on the ice, as cameras rolled.
I had known about the hunt and the
protests for close to 10 years, first hearing
of it soon after Brian Davies moved his Save The
Seals Fund to the U.S. from New Brunswick and
retitled it the International Fund for Animal
When the U.S. Postal Service introduced
nonprofit bulk mail discounts in 1969, the seal
hunt was among the topics that built IFAW, the
Animal Protection Institute, Greenpeace, and
the Fund for Animals. The seal hunt was already
a cause celebré before Bardot gave up acting to
start the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, before
Watson formed the Sea Shepherd Conservation
Society while Greenpeace retreated from the
sealing issue.

I was on Parliament Hill asking Canadian
political leaders for their views on the seal
hunt before the formation of PETA, or any of the
other animal rights groups that emerged in the
early 1980s–and already, their answers were
long rehearsed. Sea of Slaughter author Farley
Mowat and my late Townships Sun and Sherbrooke
Record colleague Bernard Epps, among others,
had been to Ottawa asking the same questions well
before I got there.
Though I knew the seal hunt was among the
older issues on my beat, I had no idea how long
protest against the seal hunt had been waged
until a few years ago ANIMAL PEOPLE inherited old
humane literature that documents antisealing
campaigns being waged as far back as 1900.
Allowing for technological change, the
protest tactics of 100 years ago differed little
from those of today. Europeans sought to ban
seal pelt imports. Scientists testified,
activists wrote to newspapers, witnesses
distributed images of the killing, and some of
the largest and most prominent humane societies
of the day tried to launch consumer boycotts.
None of this succeeded. The seal hunt
was interrupted only by World War I, World War
II, some years of scarce seals, and most
recently by the tenure of Brian Mulroney as prime
minister of Canada, 1983-1994. Mulroney in 1984
imposed a moratorium on the offshore phases of
the hunt, which held until 1995.
At the time, and to this day, seal hunt
opponents have asserted that the suspension under
Mulroney was due to a boycott of Atlantic
Canadian fish products. In truth, the Atlantic
Canada cod and salmon populations were already in
collapse. Fishers could barely catch enough to
fulfill the export contracts they already had.
What had actually happened was than
Mulroney, a Progressive-Conservative from Baie
Como, Quebec, was the first and only prime
minister ever to hold majorities in both Quebec,
traditionally Liberal territory, and Ontario,
the traditional Progressive-Conservative bastion.
Winning majorities in both Quebec and Ontario,
Mulroney enjoyed a wide majority in Parliament
regardless of how his party fared in the four
Maritime provinces–and the Mulroney government
may have been the only government in Canadian
history that could afford to shrug off Maritime
The Maritime provinces are New Brunswick,
Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward
Island. With a small part of Quebec, they
surround the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the
first phase of the seal hunt each year is
conducted. The second phase occurs along the
Labrador Front, north of Newfoundland, the
province in which the sealing tradition is oldest
and strongest.
The Maritime provinces actually have
little representation in Parliament, yet usually
have furnished the swing votes that determined
which party would govern the nation.
Much has changed since Mulroney left
office. The Progressive-Conservatives split into
two parties, then rejoined as the present
Conservatives. Quebec tipped from the Liberals
toward the Bloc Quebecois, descended from a
political alliance-of-convenience between
Mulroney supporters and Quebec separatists. The
left-leaning New Democratic Party, strong a
generation ago, has all but collapsed.

The balance of power

Yet the Maritime provinces still hold the
swing votes, in a nation in which only three
prime ministers in 40 years have held clear
Parliamentary majorities, one of whom was
Mulroney, while another, Pierre Trudeau,
governed for part of his tenure from a minority
Among the 305 current Members of
Parliament, there are now 127 Conservatives, 96
Liberals, 48 Bloc Quebecois, 30 NDP, and four
Conservative prime minister Stephen
Harper holds office only by keeping the support
of the entire Conservative delegation plus at
least 26 other Members.
In practical terms, this means placating
the eight Conservatives from the Maritimes,
including three from Newfoundland, plus the Bloc
Quebecois. The Bloc Quebecois, strongest in
rural areas, holds the one seat representing the
part of Quebec where seals are hunted.
As politicians usually do what keeps them
in power, Harper outspokenly favors sealing.
The Liberals are almost as close to
bringing down the Conservative government as the
Conservatives are to forming a majority, and
could do it with NDP and independent help–but
only if they keep their 21 Maritime members, who
have been elected in part because of the Liberal
legacy of unbroken support of the seal hunt.
Even if 90% of Parliament opposed the
seal hunt, as up to 70% of all Canadians have
said they do in opinion polls, sealing might
continue because the 10% of Parliament who
represent sealing regions possess the balance of
If either the Conservatives or the
Liberals moved to stop the seal hunt, the
opposition would swiftly take advantage of
Maritime discontent. Voters elsewhere in
Canada, with their own issues to consider,
cannot be expected to make their feelings about
the seal hunt pivotal in a national election.
Neither do threats of boycott make a
positive impression on voters who in Montreal are
more than 800 miles from anywhere that seals are
hunted, in Toronto are 1,100 miles away, in
Winnipeg are 2,200 miles away, in Calgary and
Edmonton are more than 3,000 miles away, and in
Vancouver are 3,600 miles away.
Yet huge opportunities are open to
sealing opponents, if appropriate tactics are
National Institute for Animal Advocacy
founder Julie Lewin wrote her 2007 book Get
Political for Animals and win the laws they need
for U.S. animal advocates. Much of the book
outlines how American government works, and
where political opportunities exist within U.S.
electoral politics. Lewin freely admits to
knowing little about Canadian politics and the
Parliamentary system. Much of her advice,
however, is directly applicable to the politics
that keep the heavily subsidized and protected
seal hunt going.
One of Lewin’s first lessons: “Ignorance
of political dynamics leads to repeated,
avoidable failures.”
Thus far, no anti-seal hunt campaign has
even tried to influence the Parliamentary balance
of power.
Everything Lewin teaches about how the
mere 4% of Americans who hunt retain dominance
over U.S. wildlife and habitat management could
be said about the sealing industry too, except
that the sealing industry has just a fraction of
the economic strength of sport hunting, and has
fewer participants than there are deer hunters in
almost any state.
The Atlantic Canadian seal hunt will end
when the political cost–not the economic
cost–of continuing it is greater to the
governing party than the cost of opposing it.
The present Canadian balance of power is so
precarious that neither the Conservatives nor the
Liberals can afford to lose support anywhere,
but losses in the Maritimes would be most
If animal advocates could defeat even a
few incumbent Members of Parliament, especially
in the Maritimes, pro-animal concerns would
begin to be taken seriously. Even if a
pro-sealing Member was replaced by a pro-sealer
of a different party, while pro-animal votes
went to a losing candidate, the turnover could
profoundly influence Canadian national political
party strategy. To either win or hold a secure
majority, a party would have to court pro-animal
voters, which could make further courting
sealers a risky gambit.
In many ridings, as Canadians call electoral
districts, tipping the political balance could
require influencing only a few thousand
votes–and in some, just a few hundred. The
funding needed to do it should be much less than
is annually invested in confrontational campaigns
on the ice.
Canadian election law, like U.S.
election law, limits the ability of non-citizens
to influence voting with financial contributions.
Yet more than half of the total Canadian
population lives within broadcast range of U.S.
television and radio stations, which are often
more watched in nearby parts of Canada than
either of the two Canadian national networks,
the CBC and CTV. U.S. pro-animal organizations
need only air educational ads affirming positive
Canadian values in contrast to the behavior of
sealers, helping to build a supportive climate
for grassroots Canadian electioneering.
Between 25 and 30 years ago, in separate
conversations, several then-and-future Canadian
cabinet ministers, of all three of the then
largest political parties, outlined to me–off
the record and strictly hypothetically–what they
thought ending the seal hunt would take. The
short answer was always that it would happen only
when and if protest matured into grassroots
political mobilization. They never imagined that
animal advocates could demonstrate the needed
level of tactical skill. I never imagined it
would take this long.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *