A group of animal rights activists stood on the southwest corner of University and College, just outside Queen’s Park subway station during lunch hour, sharing information with passersby and encouraging them to sign a petition asking the federal government to end the annual harp seal hunt in eastern Canada.

Susan Morris called it the seal slaughter.

“It’s cruel, inhumane and economically, it’s ridiculous,” said Morris, who organized Monday’s protest in Toronto. “Our tax dollars are paying for this when seventy-one per cent of the population disagrees with it.”

Morris said the seal hunt generated $1.4 million last year yet taxpayers were forced to foot the $4.3-million bill for the Canadian Coast Guard to protect the area. Most sealers are commercial fishermen who earn less than five per cent of their annual income (anywhere from $200 to $3,000) from killing seals.

“So it’s a losing proposition (for taxpayers),” she said.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to measure the cost in terms of pain and suffering the baby seals must endure. Approximately 12 to 15 days after the mother gives birth, she leaves her seal pups on the ice. When their fur turns from white to gray, they’re allowed to be killed.

“They can’t move,” said Morris. “They just basically lie there.”

As the pups are stretched out on the ice, hunters approach and allegedly hook live seals through their eye sockets with a spiked club called a hakapik, before bashing their skulls in with a club. But that doesn’t always kill or render the animal unconscious. Often, they’re bled out and skinned alive on the ice.

The 2011 seal hunt season opened in mid-February when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans authorized the slaughter of 60,000 seals (80 per cent of the pups born this year), according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Although March 15 is the traditional International Day of Action against seal hunting, events are being held throughout the entire month.

Morris said that animal rights groups aren’t opposed to native people who only hunt about 1,000 seals a season and use every part of the animal for their survival rather than economic gain.

With markets diminishing due to bans on seal products in the U.S. and Europe, there’s little monetary gain for commercial sealers. Yet the Canadian government steadfastly refuses to ban the commercial seal hunt in Canada.

Animal rights groups have speculated that politicians are reluctant to impose a ban for fear of losing seats in Atlantic Canada in upcoming elections. Meanwhile, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea announced in February that Canada will formally challenge the EU ban on seal products at the World Trade Organization.

Since polls show that most Canadians oppose the commercial seal hunt, animal rights activists would like to turn that sentiment into action.

On a dull, overcast first day of spring, steps away from the Queen’s Park legislature, they handed out postcards to people that they can complete and mail to their Member of Parliament.

“If people see the pictures and read the literature, hopefully they’ll have the same feeling we have about it,” said Morris.

A few feet away, in front of the entrance to the subway station, Kate Steen was busy trying to convince passersby to sign a petition to end the slaughter of seals in Canada.

“So many Canadians don’t even realize that the largest slaughter of marine life is still happening every year,” said Steen. “It’s disgusting especially since they leave the rotting carcass on the ice because they’re only interested in the fur.”

Last year, Senator Mac Harb introduced Bill S-207 to end the commercial seal hunt and in June he gave a speech in the Senate in which he said that one half of all Newfoundlanders (the majority of commercial sealers) would consider a buy-out of the sealing industry to compensate them for lost revenues while developing economic alternatives.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.