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January-February 2010

Interview: sealskin clothing designer and lawyer Aaju Peter

Paul McLaughlinWebsite

Europe’s sealskin ban threatens her runway-ready apparel—and maybe the entire Inuit way of life

Aaju Peter. Illustration by David Donald.

Aaju Peter. Illustration by David Donald.

A majority of the 27 member states of the European Union voted to ban the trade of seal product imports such as pelts, oil, and meat last July. The ban comes into effect in August 2010. Although the EU did allow a partial exemption for Inuit populations, the ban will nonetheless have devastating consequences for Canada’s northern indigenous people, according to Aaju Peter, an Inuk clothing designer, lawyer, and activist. We spoke with Peter in Ottawa, where she is pursuing an additional degree in international law.

This: What work do you do with sealskins?

Peter: I design contemporary clothes that are inspired by traditional Inuit designs.

This: Such as?

Peter: Everything from tank tops, vests, skirts, pants, jackets, to mittens and slippers.

This: What do they cost?

Peter: A sealskin bag I can make for $350. For a jacket it can be between $1,500 and $4,000.

This: Where do you sell them?

Peter: Mostly in Iqaluit [in Nunavut]. Or by special order. [Former] governor general Adrienne Clarkson has a coat.

This: Is sealskin difficult to work with?

Peter: If you have 10 or 20 years experience it’s not that difficult. It takes a long time to acquire the skills that are needed to work with it.

This: How is business?

Peter: It’s slow right now because I’m working on my degree. But if I did sealskin full time I could be very, very wealthy.

This: What is your reaction to the EU ban?

Peter: It will have a devastating effect. It already has on the hunters. They normally would get $60 to $90 for a skin. Now they get about $5. The cost of living is very high in the Arctic. They won’t be able to get enough money to sustain their families.

This: Won’t the Inuit exemption protect them?

Peter: The exemption is very restrictive and absolutely useless. I won’t be able to sell my clothes in Europe. If [the seal] is traditionally hunted and is used for cultural trading purposes only, then it’s okay. They want us to be like little stick Eskimos who are stuck on the land and go out in our little Eskimo clothes with a harpoon. They will not let us hunt with rifles and snow machines. They will not let us sell commercial products. It’s a form of cultural colonization. A journalist in the Netherlands called it the Bambification of the Inuit, like we’re in some Disney movie.

This: Can you understand the opposition to the seal hunt?

Peter: I don’t wish to understand it. I can explain it. It’s become a moral issue that it’s not right to kill animals. It stems from a society that lives in large urban areas that are totally detached from nature and detached from a subsistence economy where you go out and catch what you need and try to make money out of that. It’s a culture that is pushed by a people who have absolutely no connection to the people they are affecting because it’s not affecting them.

This: Any chance of changing people’s minds?

Peter: I always try to be positive, which is why I went to Europe [to fight against the ban]. But I’ve come to realize that people who are living on selling or eating seal don’t have the same amount of money that special interest groups have. For instance, the animal rights groups had a humongous truck outside [the European Parliament] with a humongous screen where they were showing films of seals being slaughtered. And they put pictures of a seal head with “Vote Yes,” for a ban and put them on the doors of all the 800 members of parliament. We couldn’t [afford] anything like that.

This: What would you have wanted the Parliamentarians to understand?

Peter: That this is an issue that is very, very important for Inuit survival. I travel with the courts to the smaller communities. In the winter you see a frame with sealskin on it outside every home. You can see the importance for these families, who have nothing else, no other form of economy, to be able to sell the skins for what they’re worth. I see the harm that is being done to the communities but they’re not able to communicate this. How can a group of people who know nothing about this pass legislation that can have such harmful effects on others? I have a hard time believing those 800 parliamentarians would be able to sleep at night if they knew the harm they are causing.

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