Madam Speaker, I would like to begin by saying that I am honoured to take part in the debate on Bill S-208, particularly because there are people in my riding, especially in Nunavik, who rely heavily on seals.
Over this past week, it has been obvious for us here in the south to feel the changes of spring returning to the land. For indigenous peoples, in our languages, the names marking the passage of time are interconnected with the environment and wildlife surrounding us. Our traditional cycles of yearly activities are closely tied to what the animals and plants are doing.
In Nunavik, for instance, this time of year is called Tirilluliuti, which is the season for bearded seals to have babies. How fitting that we are here at this time recognizing the importance of these animals to northern communities, as the member for Thornhill just said.
I would like to quote Sheila Watt-Cloutier, who comes from the community of Kuujjuaq in my riding. While writing about the social and cultural importance of the seal hunt, she said:
It's hard to describe the excitement that would flash through Kuujjuaq when word came that hunters were returning with a large harvest, like a seal.... Word spread from neighbour to neighbour, from house to house, and everyone headed to the home of the hunter.... Sitting or squatting on the floor, the men and women would begin to cut up the carcass with sharp knives or an ulu.... Everyone else, including the children, would sit circling the seal. Pieces of meat would be passed around...to eat.... The liver was one of my favourites. But the best moment was when we would [all] reach into the...seal and dip our hands, coating our scooped fingers with sweet, rich blood, which we licked off like honey.... Those precious moments, sitting on the floor with my grandmother and mother, my brothers and sister, my uncle and his family, and so many members of my community...were treasured times.
But the importance of country food to my community goes far beyond taste.... Country food is the fuel we need to thrive in the Arctic.
That passage comes from her book The Right to be Cold.
Besides her description of sharing with her community the product of a hunt, what I love about this memory is the message she teaches us, which is that Inuit need seal to thrive in the Arctic. Inuit hunt seals for food, clothing, and many other products, and they market the by-products of the sustainable hunt internationally today. Recognizing and honouring the Inuit seal harvest and products with legislation that would mark May 20 as national seal products day also recognizes and honours the traditional Inuit way of life.
Article 20 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms the right to maintain and develop indigenous “political, economic and social systems or institutions, to be secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities.” For many Inuit, this means a continuation of the seal hunt, and the diversification of traditional uses toward commercial markets and new products.
Colonizing society, organizations, and governments violates that inherent right when it attempts to place misinformed restrictions on seal products, restrictions that have caused immeasurable harm to indigenous communities across the north. Inuit originally joined the commercial seal market due to pressures from colonization. They were herded into permanent settled communities and actively prevented from living traditional lifestyles. Sled dogs were shot by the RCMP. The Inuit people turned to the monetary economy to buy fuel for their snowmobiles and to survive.
The banning of products from the Inuit hunt caused economic devastation, and I can attest, personal humiliation among Inuit communities. The seal skin market is so important because it allows Inuit to maintain a piece of their traditional lifestyle, and in doing so, assert autonomy and control over their social systems.
Nunavik Creations is an example of the tremendous entrepreneurship in the north of my riding. The award-winning company employs Inuit women from various communities in Nunavik as seamstresses, designers, creative analysts, sample makers, pattern makers, and in administrative roles promoting Inuit culture through their unique garments.
Creating a day each year when all of Canada supports the inherent right that Inuit have to participate in the economy, take care of their families and communities, and thrive in this millennium would go a long way toward truth-telling and making amends for previous wrongs done to indigenous peoples.
Indigenous peoples, as stewards of their territories, have the obligation to care for the land and waters. For Inuit, the right to maintain and promote spiritual practices is closely connected to hunting seal. Throughout the Arctic, stories are told about an aquatic female character, sometimes called Sanna. She controls the sea mammals and determines the fate of surface dwellers. She is someone to beg when a hunter is hopeful, and someone to blame if a hunter fails. If we are to advance our understanding of Inuit-defined sovereignty, the first important entity we must recognize is the sea. In doing so, we must respect all Inuit practices connected to the sea and Sanna's children, the sea mammals.
The relationship between humans and seals, which has developed over thousands of years through precise observations while out on the sea ice waiting to harpoon a seal, while monitoring seal breathing holes, birthing dens, and migration patterns, is central to Inuit culture.
I am proud to stand in the House and say that I fully support Bill S-208, legislation that supports the inherent rights of the Inuit to maintain their social, cultural, political, and economic relationship to the seals, to Sanna, and to the sea.