NUNAVUT - Seal as a Way of Life

Rugged rock formations jut out into the endless sky. Tenacious tundra and lichens dot the harsh landscape with bursts of colour, persevering through arctic windstorms. A midnight sun shines relentlessly, kissing the polar seas. A lone polar bear sits at shore’s edge, awaiting the ice cover that will take him on his adventure. A place where life seems impossible but is actually brimming with its precious stirrings in a distinctly Northern balance. This is Nunavut.

Nunavut is 2 million square kilometres of some of the most beautiful terrain on earth, a fierce and unforgiving wilderness largely untouched by human habitation. It encompasses the Canadian Arctic islands and the northeastern part of what was formerly the Northwest Territories. Only 28,000 people live in Nunavut, a territorial designation officially inked in 1999 but with a culture and history that spans millenniums. 85% of the population is Inuit and reside in 28 permanently inhabited coastal communities. Inuktitut is regarded by 70% of Nunavut residents as their mother tongue.

Seals have been germane to human survival across the Canadian Arctic for thousands of years. The region’s scarcity of plant life has rendered the seal a primary subsistence resource. While times have changed and the traditional subsistence lifestyle has had to adjust, the seal remains an integral part of the Inuit culture and economy. Very little goes to waste. Nutritious seal meat is a central part of the Inuit diet. In the old days, the oil was burned to provide heat and light. Skins are used to make mittens, kamiks and parkas, clothing necessary to ward off the Arctic chill. Even the bones are used for a variety of purposes.

Louise Troyansky of Ricky and Ingo, a skin importing company based in Iqaluit, Nunavut was in Montreal for this year’s edition of NAFFEM, in association with the NDC (Nunavut Development Corporation).

“Sealing is a model of sustainable use of a renewable resource. We are sharing a Northern experience and way of life without commercial harvesting.”

Despite the fact that seals abound in the Canadian Arctic, Inuit hunters are well aware of the dangers involved in reckless, indiscriminate hunting; only what is needed is taken. The Northern peoples hold a profound relationship of respect with other creatures that they share the land with. Special rituals are conducted to honour the soul of the slain animal. What a different picture than that painted by anti-sealing lobbyists in the 1980’s, whose emotional campaign all but destroyed demand for seal pelts worldwide, endangering Inuit livelihoods. The Nunavut Wildlife Management Board carefully monitors the hunting of seals and other wildlife.

Troyansky explains how Nunavut designers are benefiting from a concentrated effort to pierce not only Southern but also international markets.

“The NDC is an umbrella organization employing over 500 Nunavut residents. They help Iqaluit designers to work with new methods and to develop a look that works in different markets. We see people earning a living and regaining their pride.” Troyansky explains the natural advantages sealskin brings to a piece of clothing. “Seal is remarkably unique, with shiny, tough bristles that take well to dyeing. The natural spots are also beautiful. The porous skin retains heat but not moisture, which is why it has been used for thousands of years.”

Daniel Cox, Fashion Editor
Marek Wlazlo, Photographer