In 1976, Greenpeace launched a campaign to save the 200,000 harp seals that Newfoundlanders and Norwegians harvested annually in Atlantic Canada. Graphic images of bloody pups on sea ice helped quash global demand for their pelts, and led to trade bans. But high on sanctimony, activists failed to consider how this would affect such Inuit communities as Clyde River, on the east coast of Baffin Island, where a population of about 200 relied on seals for food and income. The impact of collapsing prices was devastating: Clyde River hunters sold 2,504 sealskins from the 1979–80 season but only 532 five years later, with income from the hunt dropping to $3,719 from $57,824.
On June 20, 2014, Greenpeace apologized for its negligence toward Indigenous hunters in an op-ed published in the Nunatsiaq News. Within weeks, Clyde River and Greenpeace joined forces to oppose the National Energy Board’s approval of seismic testing off Baffin Island, along with the oil and gas development it could bring. In separate interviews, Jerry Natanine, the mayor of Clyde River, and Jessica Wilson, Arctic campaign leader for Greenpeace Canada, describe their once unthinkable truce.
Jerry Natanine: When I was growing up, my parents would go out to camp in April, and we’d be out there from then on. We’d start eating baby seals, and as the spring progressed bigger seals. We’d go with other families. It was quite a few people.
Jessica Wilson: The campaign kind of took on a life of its own—people felt quite connected emotionally. It was part of that time when the campaign against the commercial whale hunt was at its peak. Greenpeace was specifically directing the seal campaign against the commercial hunt, rather than the traditional subsistence hunt, but it certainly did not do a good job of communicating that clearly.
Natanine: It’s like a movie, when I think back—being out on the land, watching the ice go from frozen to melting, and cracks coming along. My mom would clean skins and make clothing out of them, like kamiks, and sell a lot of it. My dad was able to afford canoes, Ski-Doos, rifles and binoculars, and camp stoves. That’s how everyone lived at the time.
Wilson: It certainly came to define us as an organization—for better or worse—for many years.
Natanine: My parents made a dish with the fat—some of it would have parts of meat in it—that tasted like bacon. We’d have seal every day, and I’d say, Oh, I’m so tired of seal. Then someone with a polar bear licence would come down, and polar bear meat would be a good difference. But there was always seal.
Wilson: The federal government’s mismanagement of the seal hunt was a big part of the campaign. They subsidized the hunt quite significantly, and the regulations and laws around it were very lax and needed tightening up. That was one of the successes of the campaign.
Natanine: When the price of pelts got really low because of Greenpeace, hunters weren’t catching seal as much. We weren’t in camp as long. As the years progressed, the season got shorter and shorter, and our parents worked more and more. That’s what got us stuck in the communities—the main income had to be jobs now.
Wilson: It certainly hurt the communities economically, in terms of their ability to support themselves by selling seal pelts. We can’t undo the past; we’ve inherited a lot of mistakes. But we are actively trying to decolonize who we are as an organization. I’m of Cree and Mohawk descent myself. It’s very close to my heart.
Natanine: Our parents started drinking. It made it really hard for us, growing up with drinking parents. I remember having to go through the window and run out when they were getting rowdy. It was really dark times. I know all the societal ills are based on a lot of things, but the big part is us not going out on the land. If there was an enemy, it was Greenpeace. That’s how it was.
Wilson: We had to really look at where we’d gone wrong in the past and not just apologize, but make amends for it.
Natanine: I saw the headline “Greenpeace Hopes to Set the Record Straight on Aboriginal Hunting,” and I said, I’m not even going to read that. As the day went on, I thought about it: I wonder what they have to say?
Wilson: We hoped to make it clear that we want to be a different, better version of ourselves. And that we are aware of the impact that our campaign had, and that we are taking responsibility for our mistakes.
Natanine: I couldn’t help but shed a tear and release it all. I considered it in my soul, and I said, All right, I forgive them. To me it was a very big deal—the feeling of letting go of my greatest enemy. They’re not evil. They’re human beings. They just want the same things as us: they want the environment protected and the animals protected.
Wilson: For Jerry to be able to feel like he could forgive and move past this was a really powerful moment for all of us. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house the day we heard.
Natanine: We’re fighting a similar cause, and they’re better equipped to fight such things. That’s all I’m looking at.
Wilson: People are at the heart of today’s campaigns. It’s the people who are being affected. It’s the people who, together, realize their power and unite.
Natanine: I couldn’t believe it. One moment to the next moment—really different.
Wilson: It’s very important for us that Jerry and his community lead the way. We’re asking: What is it that you need from us? How can we help? It’s new for all of us.
Natanine: Some people here are definitely concerned about working with Greenpeace, and some are downright against it. But most people have been saying, Anything to stop seismic testing, and oil and gas. Because the way it is now, outsiders just want to come in and take the oil and go. Hardly any benefits to anyone. And if there’s an oil spill, they cannot even clean it up.
Wilson: I understand the skepticism. We have a long history that we’re climbing back from. I guess it’s going to be about actions speaking louder than words.
This appeared in the November 2014 issue.