It’s not the first time such a delicate topic has been broached in media.
Randy Simms, host of VOCM Open Line, has suggested several times that the seal hunt is beyond saving; that we may as well let it die. Seldom is he challenged on that point of view.
More recently, John Furlong, host of the Fisheries Broadcast on CBC, asked in a column if it was “time to pull the plug on the seal hunt.”
“There's no question in my mind that the commercial seal hunt is probably on the way out. So does anyone care?” Furlong wrote, adding this further down: “Should we not talk about that? Is it wrong to even suggest that it might be time to examine the future of the seal hunt and the contribution it makes to the Newfoundland economy?”
Controversial stuff, yes. But it caused barely a ripple until NDP MP Ryan Cleary repeated similar questions, in an interview with the Broadcast.
“Is the day of the seal hunt nearing an end?” Cleary said. “Now I’m not anti-Newfoundland and Labrador by raising that question. I think you’re being smart by raising that question. It’s a question that we all have to ask… My honest answer is, the day of the seal hunt may be nearing an end.”
As Furlong noted in his intro, Cleary was not advocating or lobbying for closure of the hunt, merely asking if it was feasible for it to continue.
Either way, it all hit the fan after that. The following day, Furlong interviewed former Liberal politician John Efford, who heard Cleary say something else.
“I feel very discouraged by the fact that a representative of this province would make a public statement and ask, really what he’s asking for is that the seal hunt to be shut down totally. It’s something that I just couldn’t imagine and if I wouldn’t have heard it myself, I would have argued and said no, that’s not possible, that an MP representing Newfoundland and Labrador – and a lot of fishermen, by the way, in his riding – to make that statement is totally disgusting.”
Of course, animal rights radicals like PETA claimed that Cleary was indeed calling for an end to the hunt. Liberal and PC MPs criticized Cleary for attacking, rather than defending, the hunt. Calls to talk radio tore a strip off Cleary, suggesting that he was no longer a “fighting Newfoundlander.”
There’s much I could write about this, but I decided to go one better. I contacted Cleary and requested an interview. He got back to me almost immediately, and we discussed the controversy generated by his remarks. Cleary said he’s not completely surprised by the fallout – it comes with being a Member of Parliament – and he is not backing down from what he said.
“The story has legs,” Cleary said. “And hopefully the legs will outlast the spin. But the animal rights groups are going to run with it and put a spin on it. The Harper Conservatives – Peter Penashue, Keith Ashfield – are going to put their spin on it. So will the Liberals. Everybody’s going to put their spin on it… It doesn’t frustrate me so much as it fascinates me. It’s fascinating to be in the eye of the spin.”
However, Cleary intends to repeat his message as long as it takes, as long as the media are listening, until people start talking about the seal hunt itself.
“People have to wade through the spin,” he said. “I keep telling people that if we keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, we’re going to get the same result. We’ve got to do things differently. The fishery overall is a problem. The fishery overall is broken. So when we look at the problem, we’ve got to look at all angles and all different sides, and try to come up with a solution.”
Cleary is encountering one of the realities of Newfoundland politics, that some subjects are simply not open for discussion.
“The fact that there are certain issues, like the seal hunt, that you can’t even talk about, that are taboo, I think we’ve got to get past that. It gets us absolutely nowhere. The intelligent thing to do, and the thing that a good journalist would do, is take a look at a story from all different sides and just lay it out there.”
Cleary recalls writing a column similar in content to what John Furlong wrote, when he was editor of “The Independent”.
“Back then, George Rose, the cod scientist, raised the idea of a trade-off of the commercial seal hunt for a complete ban on (European) fishing on the Grand Banks, to give stocks a chance to heal. Now that was a very interesting idea and he was hesitant to put it out there, because he knew by even raising the topic he might be slammed for it. And there’s something wrong when you can’t even have debate. That’s not healthy. I’ve got a number of emails on this, positive and negative, and so far it’s about 50/50. Some of the people who say this is a good debate are business people, who don’t want to be named because they fear repercussions. It’s just interesting to note, that’s all I’ll say.”
Cleary said he constantly challenged himself to write about difficult subjects, when he was editor of “The Independent”.
“The question I would ask myself every week, before I wrote a column, was ‘What am I afraid to write about?’ And then I would write about that, and put it out there. You know, the bottom line is, the status quo in Newfoundland and Labrador, in terms of the fishery, is not working. We’ve got to raise the debate. We can’t be afraid to talk about any topic, and if there’s one message I could get through to anybody, it is this: We can’t be afraid of the debate. No issue should be taboo. No issue.”
I was occasionally critical of Ryan Cleary, when he was editor of “The Independent”. If I disagreed with what he was doing, I said so. I agreed with him less often, but when I did, I said that, too. Cleary was always something of a firebrand who rubbed many reporters and editors the wrong way. I asked, then, if some of the coverage he has received locally could be influenced by the bridges he has burned with colleagues?
“I’ll answer it this way,” he said, after a pause. “Being on this side of the fence now, it’s fascinating to watch how the media works. It’s one thing to be in the media, and be a part of it, it’s another thing to be on the other side of the fence, and to watch. But me commenting on the media right now will get me absolutely nowhere. I will have lots to say in the memoirs, but not before then.”
Cleary said that political life in Ottawa is not the “real world.”
“When I first came up here, I said the home riding is earth, and Ottawa is the moon. I’m on the moon right now, and reality is back on earth.”
Does Cleary wish he had the insight he does now, gleaned from political experience, back when he was a journalist?
“That is a good question. No, I don’t. It wouldn’t have done any good. I think the world of journalism has to be removed from the world of politics, and there has to be a separation. So, no, I don’t wish that. It’s just fascinating to watch… But I do find it fascinating. End of sentence.”