It’s been a year since Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie—with Meryl Streep, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and a half-dozen other big stars crammed in around her—lit up the Internet. The photo was re-tweeted more than two million times during the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony, a new record, and was seen by more than 37 million people around the world, according to Twitter. It was one of those fleeting moments that “breaks the Internet”—and then we all move on.
But for many residents of northern Canada, Ellen’s selfie was the start of something more. In gratitude for the marketing boost, Samsung—the company behind the phone that took the famous shot—made a hefty donation to a charity of DeGeneres’ choosing. One of her selections was the Humane Society of the United States, a vocal critic of Canada’s seal hunt. (DeGeneres has also spoken out previously against the hunt.)
Thus began #sealfie.
Northerners, mainly Inuit residents of Nunavut, began posting photos of themselves to social media, posing in clothing made from seal. Many of the posts were addressed directly to Ellen’s Twitter handle; some featured taglines like “I am Inuit, and I am a seal meat eater,” or additional hashtags like #huntseal, #eatseal, and #wearseal.
Unless you’ve lived in the North, or on parts of Canada’s East Coast, it might be hard to understand the pugnacious response many anti-seal hunt protesters receive here. Until relatively recently, when the Alberta oil sands stained our international reputation, Canada was known as an eco-progressive country. Outsiders might reasonably ask: How could we allow the brutal clubbing of cute, doe-eyed seals for their fur? And not just allow it, but celebrate it? Didn’t we all agree years ago that fur should go out of fashion?
The answer is that, for some Canadians, hunting seal is a way of life—and a way of life under threat. On the East Coast, the commercial seal hunt is yet another slice of the economy that’s been battered by forces beyond locals’ control—alongside the collapsed fishery and shuttered mines—and that breeds the kind of ironic belligerence that you get when you back someone into a corner. (Going to college in Nova Scotia, I saw bumper stickers that read “I club baby seals,” and “Club seals not sandwiches.”) In Nunavut, and throughout the Inuit communities of the Arctic, seal means even more.
“Seal is everything in Nunavut,” says Kent Driscoll, the Iqaluit bureau reporter for Canada’s APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “It’s one of the most widely available forms of wildlife. You can eat and use every part. The fur is incredibly warm. And the thing that most southerners don’t understand, the whole idea is that seal is a renewable resource. And for Nunavut, that’s huge, because so many of our resources are non-renewable. Once you mine something, it’s gone ... I don’t think you can overestimate how important seal is economically. And then you get into socially.”
In the public imagination, and often in reality, indigenous groups and environmental activists tend to make common cause. “It would seem like a natural alliance—people who are inclined to protect the land,” Driscoll says. But the seal hunt has long been an ugly exception. The hunt has been a target of animal rights activists for decades. And Inuit antipathy toward the activists covers the same span of time. “The anger against the anti-sealing thing goes all the way back to Greenpeace,” says Driscoll, referring to the organization’s early missions on the ice in the late 1970s, one of which featured the actress Brigitte Bardot. “In recent Nunavut political history,” Driscoll says, “it goes back as far as the Paul McCartney thing.” (McCartney and his wife posed with seal pups on ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2006, and declared the hunt a “stain” on Canada.)
Nunavut’s #sealfie movement did not go unnoticed. Anti-sealing activists fought back on Twitter, and as so often happens online, things got nasty fast. Celebrated Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq caught the worst of it—her #sealfie of her infant lying next to a freshly killed seal prompted death threats, racist slurs, demands that her child be removed from her care, and even a photoshopped image of the baby, bludgeoned to death.
“I was surprised at how much she was personally targeted,” Driscoll says. “People have a real problem when they see indigenous women speaking up. I think if it had been an Inuk male performer standing up and doing that, they probably wouldn’t have caught as much backlash... Animal rights activists seem to think Inuit have something to feel bad about when it comes to harvesting animals. And Tanya says, no, we don’t.”
Tagaq, who declined to comment for this column, recently accepted a major Canadian music award, the Polaris Prize, with the words “Fuck PETA.”
There have recently been some signs of a possible thaw in the relationship between the major environmental groups and Canada’s Inuit. But so long as those groups line up against the practice of hunting, eating, and wearing seal, viewed as part of the bedrock of Inuit culture, trust and cooperation between the two sides remains unlikely.
“There are no swear words in Inuktitut,” Driscoll says. “The closest thing is ‘Greenpeace.’”
Dispatches From a Changing Arctic is a biweekly series of reported stories from Alaska and the three Canadian northern territories.