A New Ethic or an End to a Way of Life? A Roundtable Discussion Between Native Trappers and Animal Advocates


(Featured image: Inuit woman stretching a seal skin on a frame, circa 1961. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Animals Agenda Dec 1988 Native Fur coverIn 1988, animal rights activist Kim Bartlett, then editor of The Animals’ Agenda magazine (now president of Animal People), organized for the first time ever a roundtable discussion between animal activists and representatives of the Indigenous fur trapping industry. A record of the meeting was published in The Animals’ Agenda December 1988 edition, under the title “A New Ethic or an End to a Way of Life? Native Trappers Meet Animal Advocates in a First-Ever Roundtable Discussion.” Recent events such as the Canadian federal government’s announcement that it will provide $5.7 million in funding to the Inuit sealing industry of Nunavut over the next five years (and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own purchase of a sealskin vest); and Greenpeace’s endorsement of seal products marketed as “sustainable” in Greenland and the Nordic countries, despite having initiated the anti-sealing campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, show that many of the issues involved remain much the same 27 years later. So too does the underlying dilemma: the conflict between the rights of animals trapped and killed for fur, and the rights of Indigenous people long oppressed and dependent on fur for their livelihood. “A New Ethic or an End to a Way of Life?” remains as timely and valuable as ever, and Animal People hopes that by republishing it we may better inform the debates over Native fur production still raging today.


The issue of aboriginal fur trapping is a topic given relatively little attention by the animal defense community in the United States. In Canada and Western Europe, however, the rights of animals versus the rights of indigenous people to continue a “traditional” way of life is a much-debated question, to the extent that people on both sides of the controversy credit governmental concern for Native welfare with the defeat of the fur-labeling proposal in Great Britain [to label garments made from animals caught in steel-jaw leghold traps, dropped by the British legislature in June 1988 without a vote following lobbying from the Canadian fur industry].

This is an issue as complex as it is controversial. Believing that a conference might shed some light on the truth, The ANIMALS’ AGENDA decided to host a roundtable discussion where both sides could meet face-to-face to explore their differences. Dr. William Cronon, a professor at Yale University and an environmental historian, agreed to serve as moderator of the discussion. Invited to represent Native trappers were David Monture of Indigenous Survival International; Bob Stevenson of the Aboriginal Trappers Federation of Canada; and Alan Herscovici, a Canadian journalist and author of Second Nature, a book that defends trapping. Speaking for the animals were Michael O’Sullivan, Canadian field representative of the World Society for the Protection of Animals; and Patrice Greanville, who is both an editor of The ANIMALS’ AGENDA and director of the newly organized Voice of Nature Network (VNN). The six met on September 2, 1988 at Yale University, where the following dialogue took place.


[As of February 2016, David Monture is now the Technical Assistance Specialist for Intertribal Agriculture Council; Bob Stevenson is Director of the Thomson Island Youth and Elders Camp; Alan Herscovici is Senior Researcher for Truth About Fur; Dr. William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Michael O’Sullivan is Chairman and CEO of The Humane Society of Canada; and Patrice Greanville is Publisher of Animal People, Inc.]

Cronon: I think it’s fair to say that animal rights people around the world have regarded fur as one of the easier targets for convincing people that a certain use of animals is inappropriate. People seems to be more easily convinced that there’s a problem with wearing fur clothing than with, say, eating meat or using animals in experimentation. And yet recently, questions about the way the fur trade affects Native peoples has begun to surface as a serious issue. It potentially places the animal rights movement in the awkward position of trying to help one oppressed class – animals – by injuring another oppressed class – Native peoples. It’s that awkward question that has led to the discussion here. As moderator, I have a lot of sympathy for certain strands of the animal rights position, but I have no less sympathy for lots of strands of Native issues in the United States and Canada. It seems to me that there are very serious issues raised by this controversy that people on both sides need to grapple with. I’d like to begin with a brief history of the debate – how animal rights people came to be involved in the Canadian fur trade, and how that began to impinge on Natives in a way that led them to respond as they have. But first, let’s go around and get an idea of what different individuals represent in terms of organizations.

Stevenson: As aboriginal people, our first contact with the animals rights world was with Greenpeace when the sealing boycott was orchestrated to the extent that a ban was put on the importation of seal pelts in Europe. It affected the Inuit people to the point that they’re having a lot of the kinds of social problems that arise when you cut off any economic base. Since then, we’ve seen other movements turning their targets on trappers. So we started the Aboriginal Trappers Federation, which is simply a service-type organization for anyone involved in the fur trade.

O’Sullivan: The World Society for the Protection of Animals [WSPA] has a longstanding opposition to the fur trade and the wearing of fur. We see the fur trade as a consumer-related issue.

Herscovici: I don’t represent an organization. I’m a writer who’s interested in environmental and animal rights questions, the fur trade, and Native people. I have some background in the fur trade, because my own family has been involved in it for several generations. I did a radio series on the animal rights controversy in Canada for the Canadian Broadcast Corporation and wrote the book Second Nature as an analysis and critique of some of the animal rights positions from an environmental perspective.

Monture: Indigenous Survival International [ISI] is an alliance of the indigenous peoples of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, whose primary concern is conservation and development issues. We were established in 1984, when the chiefs of the Dene Nation in the Northwest Territories became increasingly concerned that the animal rights phenomenon was going to very soon have a direct impact on the international market for fur products, on which many northern aboriginal communities were highly dependent. They had seen the very real hardship caused to the Inuit by the closing of seal pelt markets in Europe, and decided to organize with others to defend the renewable resource-based economy of indigenous communities. We probably became first known as the organization that persuaded Greenpeace to suspend the “Fur-free Britain” campaign. One of our purposes in coming here today is to request the animal welfare community to take a hard look at the whole issue of habitat destruction and the downward spiral of human underdevelopment, which is clearly pointed out in the report of the Brundtland Commission. We’ve got to look more seriously at whole ecosystems, and not be concerned only with the individual creature. That creature relates to other creatures, and you can’t simply pull man out of that equation.

Greanville: In The ANIMALS’ AGENDA, we provide a forum for discussing animal and environmental issues, and we try to reflect some of the thoughts of the people we interact with as well. We try to introduce a broad perspective in order to have a political sense of how to proceed – one that will encompass a very mature view of things.

Cronon: Okay, let’s have a look at the history of this event. It seems as if the controversy began with the efforts of Greenpeace and other organizations to stop sealing activities in Newfoundland in the 1970’s, which led to a response by Natives that eventually got Greenpeace to back away from its anti-fur campaign. Concern about trapping arose at about the same time. What needs to be added to that story?

O’Sullivan: I think it’s important to realize that trapping has always been a focal point of animal welfare concern – not only in Canada, but in the U.S. and Europe. You take the leghold trap, for example. It’s been banned in 66 countries around the world, and that shows a significant interest. But I would respectfully suggest that your opening comments about animal welfare groups picking trapping as an easy target is not factual. It’s one of many programs, and we’re focusing on not just trapping for the fur trade, but also on the cage rearing of wildlife. After the intensification of campaigns against the fur trade in the 1970’s, people began to address the broader aspect. Prior to 1983, the main line of defense by the fur trade was the Newfoundland sealer. The aboriginal aspect of the seal hunt never really came to the public fore in any measurable way. Since that time, through the formation of groups such as Dave and Bob represent, that’s happening more and more.

Seal products from Canada on display at the 37th Fur and Leather Products Fair in China (photo credit: IFAW, used under CC BY-NC 2.0

Seal products from Canada on display at the 37th Fur and Leather Products Fair in China (photo credit: IFAW, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

What puzzles us are documents generated by the larger segment of the fur trade about the role of aboriginal people in the fur trade, both as the fur trade was constituted historically and as it’s constituted today. We have obtained documents under an Access for Information Act – that’s our parallel to your Freedom of Information Act – which give us some cause for concern. They talk about replacing one emotional theme, say the victim of a trap, with another emotional theme. A consultant’s report says, “Because the manipulation of public attitudes is a dynamic process, the best way to counter is it to prevent it from taking hold initially by defusing the basis for initial individual action, commitment or, if it begins to take hold, to take dramatic counteraction that will dissipate the initial commitment. Such action could be based on contradictory emotional themes of interest to the same targeted publics; for example, preservation of traditional indigenous cultures.” As a result, animal welfare groups have begun to examine the role aboriginal people actually play in the fur trade.

Cronon: Well, why don’t we talk about the role of aboriginal people in the modern Canadian fur trade and what that relationship has been historically, and come back to the issue you’ve raised in that document?

Stevenson: Well, I’d like to say that trappers look at themselves as people, first of all – with families, with a life to fend for. And we feel the issues go a lot further than just trapping. It goes into all kinds of uses of animals, and eventually it’s going to hit our other areas of concern, such as hunting, fishing, farming, and gathering. But if you want to go into trapping and the fur trade, it’s the only livelihood some aboriginal people have. And they want to continue working on a land basis, whether it be in tourism or in other areas. Now, we never invented the traps that everyone’s arguing about to begin with. Anytime we’ve been imposed upon by any change, we’ve coped with it. We’ve always adapted, and probably will continue to adapt. As for information and statistics, we try to come out with our own statistics – but we can’t even get our own information properly. The consultant who wrote the paper you mentioned probably never even consulted with us to begin with. Yet it’s being used against us. What I want to point out, Michael, is that you shouldn’t rely heavily on government information as the gospel truth.

Monture: One of the principal critiques made by animal welfare people has been that indigenous peoples are being used and abused in this debate by big government and big industry. I think you have to take a good historical look at the structure of the trade. The boundaries of this part of the world were probably associated very closely with the fur trade. Any student of history would realize that the Iroquois people from earliest times fought vehemently to be middlemen in that trade, and astutely played off the English against the Dutch. Northern Cree people played off one trading post against the other. To assume that we are only slaves of the fur trade is, I think, either taking a “noble savage” view or certainly a naïve view of history. The leghold trap has been very useful as an emotional symbol for the animal rights community. It’s being used as successfully as the white-coat seal pup was in emotion-laden television campaigns. But if a device were developed that would deliver a fatal injection to the animal – if we had that device tomorrow – that would not be good enough for the animal welfare community, because their purpose without question is to end the fur trade, period. But the trap remains a useful device around which to raise funds to keep the debate alive. Approximately 60,000 indigenous trappers are highly dependent in Canada on the fur trade, with large extended families. At least a quarter of a million Native Canadians are highly dependent on the cash and protein generated by the fur trade, and they will without a doubt be seriously affected in their local economies if international markets are closed tomorrow.

Cronon: What’s the total Canadian Native population?

Monture: In the order of 700,000 people.

Cronon: In reading over the literature, I see the statistics range all the way from a high number of 60 percent of all Canadian trappers being aboriginal or Native, down to five percent in one of the animal rights claims. This number seems to be one of the most contested statistics in the controversy. Can we not come to any agreement about that number?

Monture: I said 60,000 trappers, which would represent about half the trapping population.

Stevenson: For that five percent statistic, what the animal rights people do is take an overall population of Native peoples both in the U.S. and Canada, but very few of the aboriginal people in the U.S. are involved in trapping.

O’Sullivan: There’s a text that was released recently by the Ministry of Nature Resources, put together in consultation with the fur trade in both the U.S. and Canada, I believe, called Wild Furbearer Management and Conservation. In it, they suggest that while figures ranging from 29 to 51 percent are used to estimate the number of aboriginal trappers, there is no factual basis for determining the number. In the U.S., they suggest that approximately 95 percent are non-Native, but of that 95 percent, 25 percent claim some Native ancestry. Those are the most recent numbers, and they’re provided by the fur trade.

Monture: In most cases, provincial statistics are totally inaccurate. Most Treaty Indians don’t participate in the formal provincial trap registration system.

O’Sullivan: It would be David’s perspective that there are more than claimed, and it would be my perspective that there are fewer than claimed.

Cronon: Can we reach any…

Bobcat caught in leghold trap (photo credit: Seth Carlson, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Bobcat caught in leghold trap (photo credit: Seth Carlson, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Greanville: According to a 1984 report by the Priorities and Planning Secretariat of the Government of the Northwest Territories, “Returns from trapping are generally much lower than other income sources, with less than 5 percept listing their occupation as trappers. The majority of part-time trappers earn additional cash, but not enough generally to cover equipment and operating costs. As populations increase, trapping’s share of the economy will decline if there is an upper limit to the resources available.” But before we get too far afield with this discussion of numbers, I must say that it is, in my view, a bit beside the point. It beclouds other issues that need to be addressed. Could we defend, for example, the preservation of slavery because a great deal of people depended on it? However relevant to the everyday life of these communities, the question of numbers may be a secondary issue. One of the more unpleasant aspects of exchanging views on this subject comes from the fact that many people in the animal defense community believe very deeply in social justice. We’re dealing here with a situation in which one set of “victims” is under attack because they are participating in the victimization of another set of sentient creatures. There is nothing we can say that will resolve the issues in a satisfactory manner to everybody, but we can begin by understanding each other. First of all, the assumption by many Native spokespeople that we’re all a bunch of city slickers, or interlopers with no real understanding of your history or your problems, is not founded in reality.

Stevenson: In our discussions with animal rights people over the past few years, we have asked many of them to come and visit our communities and talk to our people – and we extend that same invitation to you right now. Very few of them have ever taken us up on it.

Greanville: I don’t doubt that there is a very major aspect of your life that is bound up in land use and animal use. On the other hand, I wanted to bring your attention to the fact that in the initial heat of this controversy, many people in the environmental movement and the animal defense community were branded as neocolonialists – as people who were trying to interfere with the destiny of a very long-victimized people. I have read the history of the northern peoples with as much care and interest as a person can have, and my perception is that when the white settlers came to the northern continent and started trading goods with the indigenous people, a pattern of dependency on the fur trade was set. Yet the fur trade rises and falls without your having any control over it. This dependency was not created by animal defense people; it has many centuries of history. Many people today are on welfare in your communities and, as the 1984 report documents, only 15 percent of young Natives say they want to be trappers. If this dependency and poverty exists because of an attachment to the fur industry, why do you want to persist in it? My supposition is that there is another reason for your strong attachment to the fur industry.

Herscovici: I agree with you that numbers aren’t the main point and that how many people are involved isn’t the main issue. But why the statistics are so different should be discussed. One reason is that in Canada, furs aren’t registered when they come into sales by the race or nationality of the people who sell them. Another is the question of who is an aboriginal person. There are status Indian people, nonstatus Indian people, and Metis – or mixed people. Some of the low estimates have not included Metis when talking about aboriginal people. And in many cases, although one person may be officially identified as selling the fur to the fur manager, there may be several people or family members working on the trapline.

Greanville: Naturally, the question that people are being affected by the rise and fall of the market is indisputable, but I don’t think the animal defense community should be characterized as being insensitive to suffering inflicted on any person or group on account of some economic…

Herscovici: Excuse me, but one of the problems I’ve had observing this issue has been that in many cases, people have been led to believe that there really aren’t many Native people dependent on the fur trade – that this is some kind of a public relations hoax. So I think one of the important things we’re called upon to establish here today is the very elementary fact that many Native people do indeed depend heavily on the fur trade. The beaver – the main fur animal – is also the main meat animal in many of the areas, but the cash from the fur is important, too.

Greanville: Let me ask you a forthright question. Do you not agree with me that the present situation of attachment to the fur industry provides a very low income basis for the indigenous community?

Herscovici: Income from the fur trade is extremely important to many of the people who are involved in it. For many it is the most important cash income they receive. Without it they would have severe difficulty. The only way this income can be replaced in many cases is by staying home and collecting welfare. But in terms of gainful employment – of being an independent person – the fur trade is an extremely important and irreplaceable source of income for a large number of people.

Cronon: Bob wanted to speak to that.

Stevenson: A Native trapper could make as little as $3,000, but in some years he might do really well – $20,000 or $30,000 a year. But you can’t look at just the sale of the pelt. What about the value of the meat – the spiritual value that’s attached – the cultural value? How do you put prices on that

Greanville: You certainly can’t, but that something you might call a spiritual valuation…

Stevenson: It’s something that’s not in your books or in your universities or in your classrooms. The spiritual value we talk about is something taught by the elders.

Greanville: Does the spiritual value, as defined, refer only to traditional uses – what you might call subsistence use of land and animals?

Stevenson: No.

Greanville: No? If it goes beyond that, where does it go? If you have, for example, indigenous-owned companies that serve as eager guides for southern sport hunters who go into the wild with no other purpose but to kill animals for fun – where does your spiritual valuation rest then? Is that commercial use of an animal or is that spiritual use of an animal?

Cronon: Is there a clear boundary between those two things?

Greanville: Well, I want to know. I would presume that there is a mutual exclusion between subsistence use and commercial use, for which the bottom line is dollars and cents. Now, I have a lot of respect for that. You have to live and pay your bills. But when the argument is being made that there are spiritual values involved, I want to know where you draw the line.

Herscovici: Could we avoid going to the idea of sport hunting for the moment, which is another thing about which there is mixed feeling in the northern communities?

Greanville: No, no…

First Nations trapper setting a conibear trap (photo credit: Crystal Luxmore, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

First Nations trapper setting a conibear trap (photo credit: Crystal Luxmore, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Herscovici: If you’re talking about the difference between commercial and subsistence, it is very difficult to make a hard division. Many trappers typically go out for several months at a time – usually with their families – onto the land, away from their communities. They might come back at Christmas when they’ll sell their fur for the first auctions, and go back out for several more months. These people take a large part of their food, most of their meat, off of the land – whether it’s from hunting caribou or whether it’s from beaver or muskrat, which is generally eaten as well – and…

Greanville: Or bowhead whales, right?

Herscovici: They don’t hunt whales inland. As anthropologists in Canada have pointed out, when you’re living a land-based life, the scarcest natural resource is cash. It’s very hard to find the money that is needed to capitalize a hunter for skidoos, ammunition, radios, or other supplies. This they can get from fur. There is nothing else in the bush for cash.

Cronon: I want to reframe this question, because it seems to me this is one of the central questions. It sounds as if the distinction between subsistence and commercial hunting is one of the key dividing points in at least one strand of this argument. It seems that subsistence hunting has one set of moral values we might attach, but if people are hunting for money, that somehow changes radically how we ought to evaluate it. I’d like to talk about subsistence versus commercial hunting, and find out what it means to have a spiritual relationship. What would be an example of a spiritual relationship to an animal?

Stevenson: The offering the people give when they have to kill an animal. It’s as simple as that.

Cronon: And they do that in their commercial trade?

Stevenson: They do that whenever they use any animal. That a part of it is going to be used in the fur trade is irrelevant to them, because they have to use it for other things as well. That is what we mean by the close relationship aboriginal people have with animals that the animal rights people don’t have.

Greanville: You know, Bob, I see very clearly the pressing economic need that exists in many of your communities. But I still have questions concerning the spiritual values and your being guides for southern hunters and being an appendage to the fur industry. Is there no question of morality about the end use of any of your labor? Is the morality of an action justified by the immediate aspect of it? If I’m an informer and turn people in who later on are tortured and go to their deaths, and I say, “Well, look, I have to feed my family,” is that a justification?

Stevenson: We don’t consider animals people, number one. We have a difference of value here in terms of priorities. We’ve often said it: God, man, animals. Okay?

Greanville: Well, you have that scale and we certainly have a different scale…

Stevenson: That’s right. That’s why we can’t come to an agreement.

Greanville: But is the fur coat a type of product with which you have no ethical problems whatsoever?

Herscovici: Native people used fur coats a long time ago.

Greanville: Yes, but people used to beat their wives, too, for centuries…

Herscovici: People still do in many places.

Greanville: Indeed, and it is not a tradition to be continued, is it? The fact that a tradition exists doesn’t justify its continuation.

O’Sullivan: I think we’re shifting a little from the subject of commercial versus subsistence. I was at the seminar at McGill in January of 1987 dealing with the aboriginal use of wildlife, and we were advised that under Section 35 of Canada’s constitution, aboriginal people are not required – in many instances – to follow the same fish and game regulations that apply to Anglophones and Francophones. And we’ve been advised fairly bluntly that it would be aboriginal people who would draw the line between commercial and subsistence – that they would take the animals using whatever methods they deemed appropriate for whatever purposes they deemed appropriate.

An opinion poll conducted by the Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing gauged the attitudes of Canadians to commercial and subsistence. It found that only 19 percent of Canadians were opposed to aboriginals taking wildlife for food and clothing. But if they were taking it for cash, 71.6 percent were opposed. Cash for hunting was 81.4 percent opposed, and large-scale commercial hunts were 95.8 percent opposed. That isn’t you with one perspective or me with another, that’s the general Canadian public.

Monture: And that’s one poll.

O’Sullivan: You’re correct, it is. But it was a poll conducted under the auspices of a commission that is far more sympathetic to your interests than it is to ours. The point I’m trying to make is that trapping, as it exists today, is in fact a commercial enterprise.

Herscovici: Is that a problem?

O’Sullivan: A commercial enterprise that causes that kind of cruelty to animals? Yeah, that’s a problem. We hear the figures quoted about the drop in income in the high Arctic over the sealing import ban. As a result of that, animal protection organizations are accused of causing social and economic hardships to Native communities. What answer do you have for a fur trade which – without warning to the Inuit – suddenly decided it didn’t want wild-caught Arctic fox anymore, that they preferred cage-bred animals from Scandinavia? All of a sudden, for fashion or manufacturing reasons, a market that has existed traditionally is lost. The loss is, in fact, inflicted upon you by the fur trade. What’s the rationalization there?

Herscovici: There’s a great difference, Michael, because in the case of switching fox, that was a switch that took place in a market. It wasn’t intentionally geared by anybody.

O’Sullivan: Was there any warning to the Native people?

Herscovici: Was there any warning to anybody?

O’Sullivan: I’m asking David. I’m talking about two parallel situations. In one, the drop in income from sealing pelts in the high Arctic – some of which I understand is made up by transfer payments – is met by the aboriginal community with a response of “cultural genocide.” In that particular case, there was a great deal of warning over many years because of the public awareness campaign against sealing. But how do you respond to a fur trade that treats aboriginal people in such a cavalier fashion over the difference between Arctic fox pelts and cage-bred animals?

Harp seal in front of sealing boat (photo credit: IFAW, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Harp seal in front of sealing boat (photo credit: IFAW, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Monture: ISI has taken a very hard look at the organization, ownership, and management of the fur trade globally. We intend, over the next five to ten years, to carve out a major market share of the international market for wild fur. And we think that with the very careful management of wild fur resources, there will not only be a better deal for all trappers in Canada, but jobs in the secondary sectors of the trade as well. We definitely intend to balance the economic equation in the very near future. Also, suggesting that the fur trade is the sole reason for the relative deprivation of Native people is, I think, rather naïve. What of disease, the land grab, and other factors? To suggest that the trade itself is the sole reason behind some kind of perpetual slavery of indigenous people is just not true. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge a point taken that indigenous people are not always reasonable in terms of the animal rights community. We have too often painted the animal rights community with the same brush. Now, I happen to be a member of the Ottawa Humane Society, and if it weren’t for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies and the sustained pressure over the years, we would not have the advances in trap technology that we have in Canada today. A lot of good has resulted from these kinds of pressures, and it’s about time more aboriginal people were prepared to admit it. But we’re a long way apart. Until we can begin to take a holistic view of the whole ecosystem – how entire species relate to each other and the consequences of our actions, as in the case of the destruction of the Atlantic ecosystem today by the seal population – not a lot is going to happen for the welfare of the animals.

O’Sullivan: Can you elaborate on what you mean by the destruction of the North Atlantic ecosystem by the seal population?

Monture: Well, I think there is no question that there are disturbing reports of parasites getting into the fishery. There is no question that there is overpopulation of the seal population. I’m hoping that the European seal ban hasn’t contributed to the current.

O’Sullivan: Just for a point of clarification, seals are dying now in the North Atlantic as a result of a combination of direct toxic waste being dumped into the sea and a lowering of the animals’ immune systems to diseases to which they’d normally be resistant. In terms of the involvement of the grey seal in the codworm cycle, which is what you’re referring to, the grey seal is not covered by the European import ban. The Canadian government has finally admitted in the Royal Commission findings that they lack enough information to proceed with a cull. In fact, they know almost next to nothing about the population dynamics of the fish stocks, so they can’t really assess the impact of seals. They’re more concerned that commercial overfishing by both Canadian fleets and foreign vessels is responsible for the decimation of fish stocks – not the EEC import ban.

Monture: For the record, both the government of Greenland and ISI supported the end of the commercial hunt. I think the jury is still out on the reasons for the seal overpopulation. There are many factors unknown and it’s going to take time and money to do a complete survey, but I would submit that in fact the seal ban has contributed to the overall picture. Certainly there’s no question that pollution is a factor.

Herscovici: Could I make a few brief points? One follows up the discussion about Native exploitation by the fur trade. I think few people in the animal rights movement realize that there’s an auction system today whereby trappers can send their furs directly into a free auction where they can get full value for their pelts. So the historical model of trappers being ripped off no longer exists.

Moving to a slightly different terrain, I was just last week speaking with trappers and raising the animal rights question with them. Some of the conversations were translated from Cree to English and back, as many of the trappers didn’t speak English, and one of the problems the Cree translator had was in trying to find a word for cruelty to an animal. Apparently in Cree, it is difficult to use that word. What I’ve been able to understand is that if a person is going out to take an animal for his needs, taking it in a respectful way, and is in relationship with it, then there is no way to express an idea of cruelty in that context. It is cruel to use something in a frivolous way or in a wasteful way. To bother an animal in some way – there would be a word for that. But in terms of making use of an animal you need, there is no concept of cruelty. I said to some of the trappers, “What would happen if the animal rights people succeed, and tomorrow there is no market for furs and there can be no trapping?” In one case, the answer was “What would happen to the animals?” That, I thought, expressed this gap that we’re having trouble crossing here. Because these people don’t see themselves as separated from animals. I said to them, “Do you think there would be more animals if there was no trapping anymore?” And the immediate response to that was “No. Because we’ve gone into areas we haven’t trapped in a long time, and often there’s hardly any animals. There may be no beaver or no marten or no muskrat, because what will happen if animals are not trapped is that their numbers grow and grow and then disease can come and the numbers can crash. We’ve gone into areas that haven’t been trapped in a long time, and there were hardly any animals. Then we started trapping them slowly, in a controlled way, and there were more and more.”

Greanville: Alan, in the history of the economic relationship between white commercial fur interests and the indigenous communities, there have been several episodes of animal populations crashing. As a matter of fast, in several regions animal populations diminished precisely at the same time that economic dependency increased. The vision of the indigenous person as a person extremely sensitive to the ecological fluctuations of the earth may be a little bit incorrect.

Herscovici: There was overtrapping of beaver in the 1920s and 30s in the James Bay area and other areas of Canada. This came at a time when – partly because of the Depression – large numbers of white people were leaving their communities and were wandering through Indian territories. There were no management controls of the type we have today, and they were trapping totally irresponsibly. Faced with a situation of outside people overusing the resource, there is evidence that the Indian people also did not restrain in the way they normally would – which is when they see a species reducing, they reduce the harvest. The Indians actually petitioned the government to close down beaver trapping, and this was done in the late 1930s and 40s. Numbers were brought back. I don’t think there is any record of Indian people wiping out or exterminating any species on this continent. Beaver and all the major furbearers are still plentiful right through their territories.

Beaver caught in conibear trap (photo credit: Crystal Luxmore, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Beaver caught in conibear trap (photo credit: Crystal Luxmore, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

O’Sullivan: Alan, you suggest that if there weren’t trapping, animal populations would crash. That implies that the traps are so selective they can keep a population in flux or catch only the species they were meant to catch. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that isn’t the case. But I was extremely interested in your information that cruelty to animals is difficult to define in the Cree language. In your book, you talked about the Crees rejecting the notion that the leghold trap was inhumane. But even the fur trade realizes that the leghold trap is a cruel and nonselective device. In any event, I’ve got a copy of a letter that was sent to a British MP by Walter Hughboy, who’s the chief of the Cree Wiminji band. On page three of his letter, he stated that “Crees have been among the first to adopt more efficient and humane traps, such as the Conibear. In fact, the great majority of the animals that we trap are no longer taken in leghold traps. Where leghold traps are still required, our people turn increasingly to a type with rubber-padded jaws that grip without cutting. Do the animal rights advocates tell you these things? It is not secret that their agenda is to attack all fine fur production, and that they do not mind doing so through a sensationalist focus on the steeljaw leghold trap.” I guess I find it a bit of a conflict between a letter from a Cree tribe to a British MP expressing a clear understanding of a cruel leghold trap and your book quoting Crees from the same area of Quebec as saying that the leghold trap is not inhumane.

Herscovici: I don’t recall that reference in my book, but what is true is that trapping methods are changing. One of the interesting things at the meeting last week was that trappers are introducing the Conibear and other traps. That was part of the purpose of the meeting. People were coming from the most remote areas, and they were showing them these new methods. You’re right, there are changes taking place.

Cronon: This has been a frustrating conversation in some ways, because what is happening is that there are certain big global issues being raised, and then there are a cascade of technical details attached to them. We start heading down one rhetorical strand, answering and rebutting each other along the way, and we lose the big issue that’s at the center of it. So, again…

Greanville: The big issue, which is?

Cronon: It seems to me that there are several big issues. One is what constitutes respect towards animals? And maybe we could cut away a lot of the argument about subsistence versus commercial use by asking if the animal rights people would care if Natives were hunting completely for subsistence, but still using a trap that causes an animal pain. The question about Native organizations being fronts for the fur industry was raised early on and hasn’t been specifically addressed. And I want to hear some talk about the potential cultural imperialism of the animal rights people, too. So, let me ask the first question quickly and simply, what does it mean to respect an animal?

Monture: We’re talking about a relationship of reciprocity, a sharing. You don’t have to go too far out of Native communities to see animal skulls hanging in trees out of respect for the spirit of the wildlife. The last time I went hunting in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, the first order of the day was a pipe ceremony. These traditions are still very strong.

Cronon: And on the other side of that question?

O’Sullivan: I think that from a standpoint of animal protection, you have to look on a situation by situation basis as to why an animal is being killed. In our view, killing 15 foxes to make a luxury fur coat does not provide a reasonable excuse for killing an animal.

Cronon: But if it were to feed a Native village and only to feed a Native village, that would be okay?

O’Sullivan: No. The situation you’re describing now no longer exists in Canadian society, so your question is so hypothetical that…

Cronon: It’s irrelevant.

O’Sullivan: It’s unrealistic.

Cronon: Very early on, Bob said that there’s a domino effect – that they have to stop the animal rights argument at the level of trapping or they’re going to face it at every level of their culture. Is that not a true perception?

O’Sullivan: Virtually all of the land claim settlements under discussion in Canada right now have a heavy emphasis on traditional land use – hunting, fishing, and trapping. Without that emphasis, from a legal standpoint, many of those land claims would not be successful. So there’s a broader aspect of the trapping debate than has been focused on so far in this discussion.

Greanville: That spills over into the issue of the authenticity of the de facto alliance between the indigenous communities – the trappers and hunters – and the fur industry. The current litigation by indigenous communities involves a very considerable amount of potential property, rights, and extensive lands. I understand that a recent settlement for the Crees involved about a billion Canadian dollars, or something like that…

O’Sullivan: More, actually.

Greanville: I calculated that it involved 17,000 people, and each of them – if the sum were to be distributed equally – would receive about $58,000 Canadian dollars. But the question that Michael points out here is…

Cronon: Both of you have raised that issue: the attachment of land claims to hunting and trapping activities. Do you suggest that it is legitimate or illegitimate?

Greanville: The right of these people to justice and to compensation for past wrongs certainly justifies special attention in many aspects. On the other hand, I feel the association of the indigenous people today with the fur industry is predicated mostly on the validation of their ongoing claims.

Cronon: What would be wrong with that?

Greanville: It would be wrong because it would involve misleading the public as to their true intent. I would put the question to the Native community this way: If you come into sovereign rights in the near future, are you prepared to say that you will preserve the land for the traditional uses of fishing, hunting, and trapping only? That you will not sign leases for mineral exploration, gas pipeline exploration, or other commercial uses?

Monture: Locked into a debate over land claims for vast territories of Canada, governments have come up with statistics to in fact downplay the importance of the land-based economy, and have deliberately come up with the kind of statistics you cited earlier from the Northwest Territories. However, the government of the Northwest Territories is now in the hands of a Native majority. The debate over claims is a hot one in Canada. Aboriginal people are saying that they must secure first the right to manage those resources – to turn around this dependency we referred to earlier – and that there will be real opportunity at the community level in all sectors of the fur industry in the future. Valuable renewable resources will always be there if we manage them carefully. But we have to first secure the right to manage them, which, at this point, we do not have. We’re in tremendous conflict with the governments over a whole range of wildlife issues, such as migratory birds, so to suggest that government has shored up the statistic is not true. If anything, it has downplayed the whole issue of the validity of the livelihoods on the land of indigenous peoples.

Cronon: I’ve heard one claim that the fur industry is using the Native organizations as a trump card – the best ploy they have for defending a trade that in the public eye is problematic. But there’s another claim here that the Natives are effectively using the fur trade to advance their own land claims, which presumably doesn’t benefit the fur industry.

O’Sullivan: The James Bay Hydro Agreement struck between the federal and Quebec governments and the Cree and Inuit of the same province over the construction of the James Bay Hydro project became a landmark of the day. Recently, it has been announced that an agreement will be signed with approximately 13,000 Dene and Metis in the Northwest Territories for 45 million acres, a cash payout of $500 million in 1990 dollars, as well as access to royalties from mineral, oil, and gas exploration. You’ve probably seen the article from Nature Canada in which George Erasmus of ISI is quoted. He talks about accusations that certain animal rights leaders have made about the willingness of Natives to sign agreements with hydro companies and so forth. He points out that, “A lot of us fought very hard to keep industry off Native land, but when deals were being made it was for the best interest of Native people. Where does it say that we aren’t supposed to share in the billions of dollars that industry makes taking oil and gas off our land? We aren’t about to turn our backs on the industrial world if we can benefit from it without destroying our close connection to the land.” You held a Native business summit in Toronto about a year and a half ago, and trapping and hunting was not promoted as part of Native business. You placed a newspaper advertisement in The Globe and Mail that said, “Today Native business is manufacturing, financial institutions, and communications, sophisticated fishing fleets and processing plants, forest products, large scale agricultural operations, mining, oil, and natural gas, real estate development, construction, shopping centers and office buildings, tourist facilities, airlines, and freight carriers.”

Cronon: What conclusion do you draw from that?

Tlingit girl with otter pelt (photo credit: appaloosa, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Tlingit girl with otter pelt (photo credit: appaloosa, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O’Sullivan: I guess my conclusion is that while there will always be a segment of aboriginal society that will trap when land claims are settled – just as right now in Canada there is a segment of Anglophones and Francophones who continue to trap – the only way to have a financial basis for Native self-government in Canada is through Native land claims. The issues dovetail very closely. It is in the interest of aboriginal people to have a high profile that will bring public attention not only to the trapping issue, but to other Native problems. And it also serves the interests of the fur trade, because the fur trade has been successful in the minds of some people in essentially rewriting the relationship it’s had over the last 200 years with aboriginal people. There is concern among some animal protection organizations about the motives of Natives acting, in effect, as public spokespeople for the fur trade.

Monture: If anything, I think you would find the fur trade rather nervous about what ISI and the Aboriginal Trappers Federation are working towards in terms of restructuring the whole industry. You have to look at where things are going in the future – the rise of China in the ranched fur sector, for example. To say that there’s a close relationship with the fur trade today is not very accurate.

Cronon: Let’s come back to Patrice’s early point about dependency. Is there anything paradoxical about a situation where a relatively impoverished, relatively oppressed group of people are dependent on the sale of a commodity to extremely wealthy people around the world? There seems to be an odd alliance between very wealthy and very poor people, and differential benefits flowing from it. Is that not a dangerous situation for Natives to find themselves in – one that’s likely to leave them with the short end of the stick when the market turns against them?

Monture: Well, we’re put in a position of having to protect international markets for fur in order to participate in the future in all sectors. That’s reality. But I think before we’re through, we could look at fur being more readily available to the average North American, and perhaps less of an elitist symbol. The Soviet Union is number one in the world, but most of its fur output is used domestically. Fur makes sense. So there may be a democratization of fur use in North America.

O’Sullivan: I guess that brings us back to another central point of disagreement, David, because what you’re saying is that what you want to do is balance the scales in terms of the economic return to Native people in the fur trade, and from your standpoint I can see why you want to do that. But when you tell me that you’re going to carve out a greater economic niche, and you’re going to try to make fur more available as a commodity to more people, that says to me an increased number of animals will be killed for the fur trade.

Monture: It may not be. It may be more in our interest to carefully manage the harvest like it never was before.

O’Sullivan: There are many cultural issues that involve a certain level of economic return, such as bullfighting in Spain. But it’s been our experience that people are interested more in the act of cruelty itself than who commits it. You’re trying to balance the economic scales and the historical unfairness of those scales. But when you say you’re going to manage the harvest perhaps more carefully than it has been before, I would suggest that what you’re doing is relying on traditional Native values that are in direct conflict with modern day Native aspirations.

Greanville: Absolutely.

Monture: I see it as a continuity of concern for wildlife and careful management of wildlife, because we’re not going anywhere if we abuse that resource. Aboriginal people know that.

Greanville: We keep talking about the level of economic return and the benefits to be derived from careful management of wildlife resources, but it seems to me that we’re still going around in circles. We have not broken through to the next level, which is the ethical basis of the case that animal defenders make. First of all, I take exception to the word “harvest,” which seems to me extremely abstract when we’re talking about sentient creatures. My position is that if one is going to take a sentient life at all, it has to be warranted by very stringent criteria. Sheer economic benefit when there are alternatives – hard as they may be to implement at times – does not provide such a case. All this conversation about wildlife management is skirting the question of end use. Fur is a product that is not essential to any consumer in the world. Naturally, you can make a case that in a very, very hard situation, it may be justified to take an animal’s life. But when we’re talking about a two or three billion dollar fur market, we have to discuss the question of pain and suffering inflicted on animals for no good reason.

Herscovici: I think we’re coming to the heart of the question. People in the northern communities that I’ve spoken to are quite amazed when they hear some of the animals rights critiques of them, because they say “Don’t these people understand the incredible suffering that’s caused to wildlife when waters are polluted, when air is polluted, when habitat is destroyed?” Somehow the trapper or the hunter who goes onto the land and kills his food and sells the fur is seen by an animal rights person as a killer. Yet, I can work in an office as an accountant, and can be a vegan and can never kill anything with my own hands, but just being in a building of this type in a city of this type, I have displaced far more animals and have caused much more havoc in the natural ecosystem than any hunter or trapper has ever done. That is the irony of this situation. Trappers and hunters are becoming scapegoats for our environmental crisis, yet trappers and hunters do not harm the ongoing life process. What is happening in our modern industrial society – whether I’m a vegetarian or not – is that we’re fundamentally damaging the ongoing life process. In my book Second Nature, I quoted Albert Schweitzer who points out that it is impossible to live without killing or harming other beings in some way. Why is it we’re looking at the hunter or the trapper as someone who’s killing or causing pain to animals when in fact he may cause less? You seem to be saying that fur is something of the past and that we no longer have a place for it. But is it? A synthetic plastic coat may be destroying the entire planet, whereas a fur coat does not.

Greanville: Indeed, plastic does destroy life. I would say that a majority of animal defenders have a tremendous interest in seeing a reevaluation of the industrial system and the way we inflict our ways of production on the environment. But the issue of killing animals as a moral question has to be answered on its own terms. Moreover, if animals face such terrible environmental problems, why compound their plight by trapping them?

Herscovici: I think it is one question, Patrice, and I’m trying to raise it. I don’t ever have to kill an animal with my own hands, but I am participating in this killing.

Greanville: We are dealing here with two things. One in which the realm of moral choice permitted by our technological prowess allows us to make some choices, and another in which that same level of technological prowess does not help us to make choices. But we do have many choices. We can substitute one product for another. We can clothe ourselves in a way that minimizes both the environmental impact and the suffering it may cause an animal. But, like you say, in certain cases it’s inevitable that some harm to life will have to be sustained.

Herscovici: Let me just ask you, is it not possible that the plastic raincoat causes more harm to living creatures than the fur coat?

O’Sullivan: You can take any pure philosophy and try to translate it into a real-life situation and, or course, it doesn’t work. But if you try and suggest that environmental concerns and animal protection concerns are somehow mutually exclusive, then you’re wrong. And the chemicals used to manufacture, dye, and tan fur coats pollute the environment, too. In terms of the fuel used to transport the pelts to auction or to the retail and manufacturing sites, there’s pollution. And there’s damage to the actual species population – particularly the lynx and wolverine, which I say are being decimated by the fur trade and you say aren’t. So there are serious environmental impacts by the fur trade, and trapping is a part of the fur trade.

Herscovici: The World Conservation Strategy, which is looking for a long-term solution to the planetary crisis, says, “We must rely heavily on responsible use of renewable resources. We must stop using non-renewable resources.” And they say that people using products like fur and people living on the land in these ways is an important part of the solution we must seek.

Cronon: I think animal rights people and environmentalists often find themselves veering towards different strands of an argument, in that animal rights people tend to focus on individual pain and suffering as a central core of an ethical relationship to a moral universe. Environmentalists worry more about the extinction of species. I think we’re circling that point over and over again. I’m not sure it needs to be argued.

O’Sullivan: I obviously didn’t make myself clear. I mean, I worry about overpopulation and about habitat, as well as individual suffering and the end use. It’s often presented that those two are mutually exclusive. I don’t quite understand that dichotomy.

Cronon: As I understand what Dave was saying earlier, he’s at least imagining that it would be possible for Natives who have a longstanding relationship to animal resources – however that relationship may or may not have been “corrupted” by the conduction of the fur trade – to manage that resource in such a way as to never threaten any species. It would be possible to imagine a world where species were preserved and the resource used, but animals would be dying and suffering in that world.

Herscovici: But they won’t stop dying and suffering in your world.

Greanville: I think they would.

O’Sullivan: In the environment David’s discussing, which is the Arctic and high Arctic, their own government study boards are showing that the human population and the use of resources is increasing now in a way that cannot be sustained. What’s being described is an environmental fallacy, because the population base is expanding in an environment that is more fragile than the southern part of the country.

Cronon: But it would certainly be possible in principle. The fur trade has been going on now for four centuries, so it has some kind of long term horizon in terms of the sustainability of that resource. It’s certainly possible to imagine a use that would destroy species, but it ought also to be possible to imagine a use that wouldn’t.

O’Sullivan: There was a study done by the Scientific Advisory Board of the Northwest Territories in 1980 which suggests that there’s real concern over those issues.

Monture: The statistics really relate to the government in power, and in 1980 there was not a Native majority in government in the Northwest Territories.

O’Sullivan: But Jim Bourque is a Metis who is head of your renewable resources department in the Northwest Territories. If he doesn’t have Native interests at heart, I don’t know who does.

Monture: Let’s imagine we’re in a meeting of CITES or of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, in which there are people from all over the world represented. That can give you a snapshot of the human condition. I think you’d be surprised at the tremendous numbers of people in the Third World and throughout the whole world who are highly dependent on animal use. It’s one thing to sit here in relative comfort and theorize about animal use, but the hard reality of life out there in the Third World is that people are highly dependent on animal use. It’s not a question of relative human economic opportunity or a few jobs. We’re talking about bottom-line survival.

O’Sullivan: As one who has worked in Latin America and the Caribbean, I’m acutely aware of the problems. Again, we see the common fallacy that people involved in animal protection or even environmental issues never travel anywhere beyond the city limits.

Greanville: What David says is only partially true. If you take a historical snapshot, you will see that, of course, a very large share of humanity’s population is connected in some degree to animal use. On the other hand, that’s a stagnant picture of reality. When we’re dealing with problems that have an ethical nature or technological nature, we’re talking about dynamic problems. The issue here is not to freeze ourselves and say that what is today has to be tomorrow, but to understand that perhaps we need to criticize and analyze what is today and from there come to a conclusion that may tell us whether our tomorrow should be a continuation of today.

Cronon: Preparing for this discussion, I tried to think of the hardest question to ask the Native groups and the hardest question I could ask the animal rights groups. You pointed towards what seems to be the hardest question I had for the animal rights groups when very early on you made an analogy of animal rights to abolitionism. We all agree that abolitionism was a good thing, but there was another half to the story. The same people who were involved in abolitionism were part of a worldwide liberal movement in the 19th century to extend European notions of ethics and values to the entire planet. A number of people who were involved in that were also involved in extirpating whole sloughs of non-European culture around the world because they were anti-Christian or somehow evil. Because of the certainty of their moral position, people had no hesitation whatsoever about wading into those cultures and destroying them. Animal rights seems to me the legacy of both of those traditions. On the one hand, it’s very clearly trying to entitle and empower an oppressed class. But on the other hand, it clearly has very little hesitation about saying that the “us” – the liberals who believe that these oppressed animals are entitled to certain liberties – are so clear that we don’t need to worry about the Native trappers or whatever other Natives might be threatened by that.

Stevenson: What I want to know from the animal rights representatives at this table is that if the aboriginal people were to be able to say that they controlled the fur industry, would the animal rights people be against them eventually as well? 

O’Sullivan: Yes, even though I completely understand why you would want to change the economic unfairness of the situation.

Inuit butchering a seal (photo credit: DorkyMum, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Inuit butchering a seal (photo credit: DorkyMum, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Stevenson: I’d like to finish off by making a few points. The overkill cases with animals are not condoned by the majority of our organizations, but it happens. We know there are problems within the animal rights movement – internal problems within their own organizations. The same thing happens to us from time to time. There are cases in which you don’t like the activities of some of your colleagues. It’s the same with us. It’s taught by elders that if a person misuses an animal, he is punished. Okay? By his own people. Because some things happen, like commercial hunting, it doesn’t mean that we agree with it. Maybe we haven’t addressed it fully yet, but that’s not to say we won’t eventually get to it. As for subsistence hunting as opposed to commercial hunting, sure, value systems change from time to time because different people come in. We have many Europeans come into our areas. Asking us to dump our involvement with the animals because of the way it’s being perceived now – maybe because of misunderstanding by animal rights groups – is a little unacceptable. If things were to go back to the natural order as animal rights people want, we aboriginal people would no longer be in contact with each other. We could say to you “Go back to where you came from.” If that’s not acceptable, then we have to try and work around it, and try to live in the best of both worlds. Incidentally, Michael, we had a booth at the Native business summit in Toronto.

Greanville: What Bill was talking about is an interesting question. When can humanity or a segment of humanity proceed without any doubts about its course? There are no ethical certainties. The only thing we can do is examine the issues as best as we can, without malice, and proceed accordingly. My own feeling from reading history is that the ethical evolution of humanity has involved the progressive enfranchisement of larger and larger sectors. But every single enfranchisement of a group that was formerly victimized has resulted in immediate social cost to the group that was profiting from that particular victimization. That was true of the institution of slavery, and in more recent times, the enfranchisement of women which meant a relative loss of political and social power to men who had previously monopolized that power. Certainly, it is hard for people who are directly benefiting from a particular set of victims’ travail to feel comfortable with a change. But I would surmise, without having any certainties, that in the longer term, the expansion of morality as we perceive it will enrich and not deplete the social and cultural resources of your people. It is a difficult situation, because it appears that animal groups are oppressing a set of peoples who are some of the most vulnerable at this point. But I believe you have in your own traditions a store of morality that is immense – which could eventually allow you to achieve not only a type of social morality that could be very good for you, but would also be indicative of better things to come for the larger industrial society.

Monture: That sounds very much like a lady I heard at the forum at McGill University. Her message was essentially that you’ve got to bite the moral bullet now and all become doctors and lawyers. There was a total absence of understanding of economic alternatives in northern communities as they exist today. We reiterate our invitation to the animal rights community to come to our communities and take a look. We’d like you to come with us and see what it’s like to live in the Northwest Territories in 40 below degrees, where there’s maybe 4 hours of daylight to work. Also, we invite you, the animal rights community, to try to achieve consensus on a global issues. The hard reality is that there’s a downward spiral of human underdevelopment. In fact, if we don’t get our act together, more and more people are going to have to become increasingly dependent on animal use at a time when animal habitat is being destroyed very systematically. It’s a pretty scary picture, and I would plead with the animal rights community to take a systematic look at it.

O’Sullivan: Speaking from a personal and organizational perspective, it’s not in my interest to impose a value system on any culture – whether it be over the trapping issue or something else. When we see cruelty to animals within a society, I think we have a right to challenge that society. We continually run into opposition from people or industries that have a vested commercial interest, and that’s to be expected. In focusing on the fur issue, it must be repeated that we’re concerned about the cruelty caused to the animals and not who is causing the cruelty.

Herscovici: The point raised by Bill has not been properly answered. There seems to be an assumption of moral superiority which is very strong. And it’s a curious assumption of moral superiority because there seems to be very little interest in coming to understand how the people who are using these animals – in this case, the Native trappers – feel about it and why they do it. They have a very close involvement with animals and nature. Unless you are assuming some kind of moral superiority, I do not understand how you can conduct international campaigns, lobby governments, try to influence consumers, and try to destroy markets, without having gone to these communities to understand what the implications are for the people involved and why they do something you are convinced is absolutely wrong. Don’t you think you are assuming moral superiority?

O’Sullivan: The answer to your question is no. We have different concepts, and not just with Native culture within Canada. You’re not Native, but we have different concepts over cruelty to animals and the fur trade. It’s not moral superiority. To take the second part of your question about the impact of our activities a bit farther, the resources that exist to represent human interests far outstrip the resources that exist to represent the interests of animal protection or the environment. In this particular debate, you and I both know that the government of Canada heavily subsidizes the pro-fur efforts of all elements of the fur trade to the tune of between $7 and $8 million a year. We don’t command those kind of resources.

Herscovici: I’m asking about your own moral perception of the people involved in trapping animals. Do you believe you are morally superior to them?

O’Sullivan: What you asked also was if we take the time to investigate the impacts. Frankly, as the fur trade, do you take the time to investigate the impacts of a pro-fur campaign on the suffering that’s caused to wildlife? I suspect the answer to that is no. So what I’m saying is, in a type of advocacy process…

Herscovici: There’s a difference. There are people out there killing animals. Do you think they have no moral conscience?

Cronon: Let me intervene. I have two last questions…

Herscovici: I’d like an answer to that.

Greanville: I’d like to answer that.

Cronon: Go ahead.

Greanville: There is no flat answer to the question of whether the taking of fur to make a fur coat is justified or unjustified. I think a case by case examination is probably the safest way to proceed here, because you can posit the case of a person living in extremely harsh circumstances in which his or her life or the life of a family member is dependent upon the taking of some fur.

Herscovici: You mean to sell as part of his income?

Greanville: No, no, no. I’m talking about immediate subsistence needs. In the realm of immediate subsistence survival needs, my answer would be that it is warranted. But when it comes to producing fur that will eventually be put on a market thousands of miles away – a product that would be defined by any impartial observer as a nonessential product – then I cannot justify it. Now, the second implication you made – that we have a sense of moral superiority and that visiting these areas firsthand would give us the clarity to better understand these people – is an old argument. True, there are many people who don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never seen it firsthand. On the other hand, there is a lot of knowledge that is perceived by relying on the firsthand accounts of people we trust. Not all human knowledge is acquired by firsthand experience.

Herscovici: Listen, you say that if people are doing something in a certain context, they may have good reasons for doing it. However, you say that when a product goes somewhere far away in a totally different context – a product that in that context is a nonessential…

Greanville: Then it’s a morally unjustifiable product.

Herscovici: No. If the act of killing the animals is what we’re talking about, then I’m not sure that what happens at the end necessarily matters for the person who is doing it. The person doing it is involved in a moral act, but there is some relationship to the animal. I suggest that part of what we’re talking about is that in the urban society where furs are used, we don’t have an ethical understanding of appreciation for the fact that an animal life has been involved. In other words, perhaps you’re not questioning the moral sense of the Native trapper, but rather the moral sense of the consumer when the killing happens at a distance. Somehow there’s been this respect and a relationship with the animals that has now broken down and doesn’t exist with the consumer. I believe one reason why the seal hunt became such a big issue was that it was seen as an industrial operation and therefore did not appear to show respect for the animals involved. You may say the same things about fur and mass livestock raising – that the animals are treated in an industrial way. That somehow these notions of respect that existed in even our own European backgrounds relatively recently no longer exist.

Cronon: What conclusion do you draw from that?

Herscovici: That perhaps what we’re talking about is not necessarily a problem with the Native trapper or any other trapper, but a problem in our own urban society of trying to define what is respectful.

Cronon: Well, good, that leads to my hard question for the Natives. It seems to me that animal rights people found themselves in the middle of this particular controversy for exactly the reason you identified, which is that they set out not to do anything to Native trappers but to stop wealthy people in New York or London or Paris from buying fur coats. And they set out to convince people that it was not appropriate to buy clothing that had involved the death of animals. Now the fallout of that was to cause hardship for Native trappers, and that’s why we find ourselves in this particular room right now. But the hard question for the Native side of this debate is if there’s anything wrong with an animal rights person coming to me – sitting here in New Haven – and saying “You shouldn’t buy your wife a fur coat, and here are the reasons we think that would be an unethical thing for you to do.” Now the Native trappers could come back and say, “If you don’t buy that fur coat, you’re doing us harm; in order to do justice to our situation, you ought to buy that coat.” It seems to me that an analogy would be like saying we shouldn’t ban cigarettes because it would hurt black tobacco farmers in North Carolina – that we ought to support the tobacco industry because there are oppressed people who benefit from it. Isn’t there a kind of odd moral dilemma involved in this? Aren’t you in effect saying that people ought to…

Monture: The animal rights community has every right to put forward its views and attempt to influence public opinion. That’s the way things get discussed. I guess where we become vulnerable is where you’ve got very large sophisticated campaigns with the zeal of televangelism, influencing legislators with thousands and thousands of letters, such as the situation currently in the European Parliament. You’ll be putting European institutions under a microscope, finding out how to get people almost in a pack-like fashion. These people are going to come under tremendous pressure, and it’s a kind of easy decision for a European. It’s not attacking the agricultural basis of his country – we’re talking about people thousands of miles away. There’s very little political cost, and it makes him look good. He doesn’t have to address the real fundamental environmental issues right there in the European community. So, it’s taking advantage of that kind of process that really scares us. I think you have every right to conduct a prolonged public education of the consumer. But it’s a question of how you interface with decision makers. And, of course, we’re a long ways away from Europe, and we don’t have organizations there. We’re not a global phenomenon like WSPA. So I guess we’re more vulnerable.

O’Sullivan: ISI, in conjunction with other groups, received from the federal government something on the order of $1.8 million for the initial costs and associated costs of the museum exhibit at the British Museum of Mankind. That was the sum total of our budget for all international projects for one year. I think, David, in fairness, you’re not telling people the kind of support you’re getting in terms of resources – financial, technical, and so forth – from the Canadian government. And much of it, I believe, is probably at the behest of the fur trade. I suspect that had you gone on your own without the backing of the fur trade to get those same kinds of funds, they wouldn’t have been made available to you. In terms of presenting your position in a very articulate fashion, the fur trade is in fact crediting your groups with defeating the British labeling proposal on fur garments manufactured from species caught in leghold traps. So, from a standpoint of saying “We’re the David against the Goliath animal protection organizations,” I don’t think that’s accurate at all.

Monture: WSPA is only one organization of many. So on a comparative basis, we’re still outgunned.

Herscovici: ISI’s formation – which took great effort – is relatively recent. The Arctic sealers never managed to do that. I’ve been to Baffin Island – to communities that are paying the price. The sealing issue is not over – it’s going on right now for the people in those communities. They never managed to get a voice. It’s hard for you to understand that not only is it difficult for the people to have their voice heard, it is hard for the people in those communities to even know that there are campaigns going on against them.

O’Sullivan: Alan, with due respect, I mean, I find David extremely articulate. I find…

Herscovici: I’m talking about the people up there. Many of the people actually involved don’t even hear about your campaigns. It’s taking great effort by groups like ISI and Aboriginal Trappers to even get the word back there. And when they hear about campaigns, I’m telling you, there’s great difficulty among many of the people on the land in understanding what those campaigns could be. To even understand that anyone could criticize trapping, which is seen as a source of food is…

Stevenson: One thing that just came up again is the use of figures – millions of dollars, as if somebody plunked a million on our table. I can send you our audited statements… 

O’Sullivan: Not just yours. I’m saying collectively.

Stevenson: I know, but that’s another form of misleading.

O’Sullivan: Bob, if animal protection organizations went to the federal government and said, “Give us $7 or $8 million to carry out animal welfare projects in Canada,” you know as well as I do what the response would be. The response would be, “That’s very interesting.”

Severed animal foot in a forgotten trap (photo credit: Travis, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Severed animal foot in a forgotten trap (photo credit: Travis, used under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Greanville: Some of the things that Alan was referring to deal with hardship caused to aboriginal peoples, and whether the cost to them is justified by what we perceive to be a moral imperative. That issue has been slipping through our fingers throughout this discussion. Bill used an analogy about tobacco growers and markets, and the fact that there is a moral question with that product because it has been demonstrated to cause harm. It harms people. Now, there is no way – unless you are absolutely morally blind and totally lacking in empathy – to dispute the fact that taking a fur involves the trapping – which is a painful process – and the killing of an animal. If you had a dog with whom I take it you would empathize, and he was caught in a leghold trap for two or three days, or was caught in an underwater snare, would you be blind to the suffering involved in that particular process? Now when you multiply that suffering by many animals for each fur coat, not to mention the so-called trash animals, then you have a very, very serious moral question. And you have to also ponder your association with an industry that has a lot of moral things to answer for. For example, as Farley Mowat has documented in his book Sea of Slaughter, mink were fed whale meat and that caused the extinction of whale stocks.

Herscovici: That’s not true.

Greanville: Yes, it is. And it has been amply documented. They had to use Beluga whales after awhile because all the other species had been decimated. For what? To feed the mink.

Stevenson: It wasn’t the Natives that did it, and that’s a fact.

Greanville: No, I’m not saying you did. It’s your willing association…

Stevenson: We’re associated with the animal rights movement, too.

Greanville: Well, naturally, Bob, but what I’m saying is that your functional alliance…

Herscovici: Farley made mention of one case in Newfoundland which went on briefly and does not exist now. You’re suggesting that was a general thing, and that’s not true.

Greanville: I think that it exists to this day for the simple reason that Soviet mink growers still feed whale meat to their mink. And this is not a problem that has been superseded by history.

Cronon: I think we’re winding down.

Monture: I personally don’t have any moral dilemma with the sustainable development of the fur resource. None whatsoever.

O’Sullivan: Right now there are pilot projects in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon for lynx and marten to be cage-reared. Is there a problem with that?

Monture: Well, I think opinion would probably be divided on the whole ranching issue. I think you also have to look at the structure of the ranching industry in the future – where it’s going, the relative economics of it.

O’Sullivan: What I’m saying is, I know that penning an animal up is not something that is highly regarded as an aboriginal cultural value. So I’m just wondering how that’s going to be rationalized.

Monture: I would have to say that opinion would be divided on it. I think most people in the far north – the trappers – would be concerned with the relative quality of life of the species. In the south, there may be a different perspective.

Cronon: Let me ask one last question. If you were to imagine yourself sitting down and talking one on one to the most sympathetic person on the opposing side – the “little old lady in tennis shoes” who is worried about the harm to animals or the Native living in the far north who will clearly suffer from anything that animal rights people accomplish in the immediate future – and you had to explain to that person what you’re up to and why you’re doing it in a very short statement, what would it be?

O’Sullivan: It would be that we are concerned about cruelty caused to animals. I’d let him know that I’d be willing to meet with him in forums like this to let the public at large hear both our sides and make a decision based on that.

Stevenson: We want to simply be heard from our own perspective. I would simply tell the little old lady that I’m a Native person representing aboriginal trappers. This is what we do and what not. I’d give her my pamphlets, and tell her to send money to keep our organization alive.

Greanville: I would like to explore with that sympathetic person the things that bind us as human beings with a sincere interest in acting as well as we can from an ethical viewpoint, and to discuss his or her sets of ethics and mine, trying to come to some sort of understanding of the immediate things that need to be done in order to reach some agreement. As far as the Native situation goes, I certainly want to see restitution and the fullest injection of justice realized. But I would have to press the point that sometimes one set of moral imperatives will clash with another set of moral imperatives. Unwarranted suffering has to be examined even if it implies criticism of a traditional way of life.

Monture: I would say that if we don’t immediately begin to address the global environmental crisis, we’re not even going to have the luxury of discussing animal rights.

Greanville: I think there is agreement on that.

Cronon: A good point to end on.

Herscovici: I was going to end on something of a similar nature. Native trappers are one of a very small and rare group of people today who actually go out on the land. At a time when we are concerned about the future of the planet, they have a lot of knowledge that everyone should be trying to learn. These are people who know things about animals that no one else knows, and they have a great deal of respect for them. Their way of life is a very difficult one, but they do it without great financial returns because they love it. The things that I’ve heard said by these people about how they feel are quite extraordinary. People living in the cities, as we do, never experience it.

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ANIMAL PEOPLE is an animal rights charitable organization dedicated to the principle that animals’ lives have intrinsic value apart from human interests. We believe there is an urgent need to cultivate human compassion for the other creatures with whom we share the earth. To that end, ANIMAL PEOPLE seeks to further animal advocacy by providing a global forum in which people who care about animals can speak and be heard. Click to see author's profile.

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