Seal wars

Aaron Beswick
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It's been more than three decades since the seal hunt was exposed to the glare of international scrutiny. Recent calls to end the hunt are reviving old battles and fears

Francis Patey of St. Anthony, author of A Battle Lost, has a scrapbook of hate mail sent to sealers, media clippings and photos from the late 1970s. Photo by Aaron Beswick/The Northern Pen

St. Anthony - Belgium and Holland have banned imported seal products. Germany, Italy and Austria have drafted similar legislation.
There are calls for bans in France, Britain and Spain.
Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Tom Rideout is accusing Canada's fisheries ambassador, Loyola Sullivan, of being "defeatist."
A British Columbia Liberal MP has called on Canada to end the hunt.
Is the seal hunt finished?
"This year will tell the tale," said Francis Patey, a veteran of an earlier battle to save the hunt. "The seal hunt might continue, but it might stop being lucrative enough for many to bother."
Patey's book, "A Battle Lost," describes the media frenzy and showdowns between sealers, Greenpeace activists, anti-hunt American congressman Leo Ryan and various celebrities.
Sitting in his living room, Patey fingers through the pages of his scrapbook. There are clippings from local and international media reports, hate letters sent to sealers, correspondence and cartoons from groups like Cod Peace.
The scrapbook is a portal to the late 1970s, when St. Anthony seemed like the centre of the world for a few days each winter and spring.
"Those were wild times," Patey recalls.
On a cold morning in 1977, he stood with seal-hunt supporters at St. Anthony's airport wearing "Save our Swilers" pins. French film star Brigitte Bardot's plane landed, she stepped off and put on a pin.
"She thought swilers were seals, until someone told her and she took it off - we had a good laugh," Patey said.
What had begun as the St. Anthony Citizens' Committee had evolved into a province-wide, pro-sealing lobby-group known as the Progressive Rights Organization.
There were more lessons to be learned than victories won.
"Where we made a mistake - the same one often made today - was falling into the hands of the international media by talking to them at all," Patey observes.
"Most people weren't media savvy. Their words would be misused and their names would be spread around the world."
He turns the heavy pages of his scrapbook to the hate mail sent to sealers, accusing them of being "blood thirsty murderers."
Other letters wish them a lifetime of impotence.
Some of the letters have been read by South African researchers studying hate literature in an attempt to understand the black/white divide in their country.
Hate literature and telephone threats continue to plague sealers and their families.
Bertha Genge of Anchor Point was inundated with phone calls during the 2005 hunt, adding to her worries about her husband on the ice floes.
"They called Ren, my husband, a murderer and a woman beater," Genge told The Northern Pen at the time.
"It was probably the hardest night I've punched yet, and there were a good many nights I tossed and turned worrying about my husband and the crew getting back to the ship safely when they were out at the seals."
One person called and said, "I'm coming for you and I'm coming for you now."
The origins of the calls were never discovered and charges were never laid.
But while some things, like threatening phone calls, have stayed the same since the '70s, much has changed.
"It's different now," Patey says. "Back then it was almost physical, now it's a war of words. They can sit at their computers in their homes now and e-mail off press releases. You might see the odd helicopter, but other than that you don't see them anymore."
That's a far cry from one fateful night in 1977 when St. Anthony was bursting with some 500 journalists, protesters and sealers.
"Things seemed ready to explode - everybody was drinking," Patey recalls. "The clergy went to the RCMP and asked that they cut off liquor sales."
But the town didn't explode and the next morning some 50 sealers and their supporters lay down on the ground in front of the Viking Motel, daring Greenpeace activist Brian Davies to walk over them to get to his helicopter.
Davies declined and the sealers were hauled away, one by one, by the RCMP.
"That's when I knew we had lost," Patey says.
The whitecoat hunt in Canada was banned soon after and the seal hunt died down for many years.
Recently, the seal hunt has become more lucrative in a province still reeling from the cod moratorium. Fishermen hit hard by high gas prices and low fish prices have turned to the harvest of older sealers, known as beaters.
The battle has begun anew.
The Northern Pen

Organizations: Greenpeace, British Columbia Liberal MP, Citizens' Committee Progressive Rights Organization RCMP

Geographic location: St. Anthony, Canada, Belgium Holland Germany Italy Austria France Britain Spain Newfoundland Anchor Point

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