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Making National Seal Products Day A Thing
...and on using Private Members Business debates to make unrelated points
On the opposite side of the issue from my “friendly fire” post on October 25th, and later in the same year, my former boss, Newfoundland MP Scott Simms tabled a bill from, and already passed by, the Senate called S-208, National Seal Products Day. It recognised the seal hunt as culturally important and worth promoting. It passed in a vote of 283 for, 3 against, with Erskine-Smith being the only Liberal to oppose it. My speech on this one offers more insight into the question of animal welfare addressed in the C-246 speech, my background to getting there, and the structure of PMBs themselves.
Madam Speaker, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to rise today to defend Senate Bill S-208, an act respecting national seal products day.
The issues and the industry have been well explained by the many speakers we have heard, so I will not repeat what they have said. I agree with them. Their speeches were very good.
I seconded this bill sponsored by my friend, colleague, and mentor, the member for Coast of Bays—Central—Notre Dame. When he asked me if I would do it, there was no hesitation on my part, for while the seal population in the Laurentians is decidedly low, it is an important issue close to my heart, one I have been passionate about going all the way back to high school. There is a back story to this that members probably will not hear very often.
I grew up in a political but not partisan family, political in the sense of getting involved in the community, in issues, in nation building in our own little corner of the nation. For reasons of opportunity not germane to this debate, I attended high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts. I received the maximum financial assistance from the school available to foreign students. There, at an institution founded in the latter half of the 19th century, called Northfield Mount Hermon School, I met students from dozens of countries, and as a teenager learned how to swear in many languages. Never did I swear so loudly as I did after the school invited a guest speaker on an issue that to that point I knew nothing about and had not even heard of. Therefore, when Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society spoke to the entire assembled student body about the need to destroy the sealing industry in Canada, and how he had sunk two ships through his activities, more than the Canadian navy itself had sunk since the Second World War, he said at the time, I twigged to its being a fundamental injustice.
As a 15-year old from rather far inland in rural Quebec, I did not yet know what the seal hunt was. Google did not yet exist, websites were often turned off at the end of the business day, Wikipedia was five years away, people still used the gopher protocol and had RFC 742, or finger, profiles, and so information had to be gleaned in more traditional ways. However, my instinct in listening to this energetic and very well-received speech, according to my fellow students, was that it did not add up. The seal hunt no doubt was an important part of Canadian culture in a part of my country I knew nothing about. It felt like an attack not only on a people or an industry but on my country. I took it as an attack on Canada itself.
I was never shy in school to identify myself as Canadian. Of over 1,100 students from around 75 countries, there were never more than about a dozen of us from here. Most of my classmates referred to me by the nickname they gave me, “Canada”, and I can say that upon returning to Canada, it was a bit of a disappointment to lose that nickname, though in a similar way, in the years I lived in Ontario, I was just as proud to identify myself as a Quebecker, which I consider to be an integral part of my identity and who I am.
At NMH, we were early adopters of technology. Jonas Reed Klein had graduated in the class of 1993, two years before my arrival. A very promising technologist, he went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that autumn, but was tragically killed in an unusual small plane crash in November of that year, the plane being knocked out of the sky in a collision with a skydiver. I never met Jonas, but my brother Jonah, who attended NMH before me, did know him, and one of my most important mentors in technology, my classmate Seth Schoen, who is now at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, met him, learned from him, and passed on a lot of that knowledge and his passion. As a result of Jonas' very promising career, and strong and, by all accounts, contagious interest in technology, his family set up a memorial fund at my school to promote the use of and education about technology. Had that series of events not happened, I would not be standing in the House today.
The technology fund created two things: one was the technology package needed to create a campus club called GEECS, a recursive acronym for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, which had a 386 running Slackware Linux on a 1.2 kernel, where I got my first Linux experience, which directly resulted in my first career as a technology journalist and news editor at linux.com, under the mentorship of Robin Miller, known in the technology world simply as Roblimo, and made me probably one of the few people ever to use Lynx, the text-mode web browser, professionally. The other was a system years ahead of its time called SWIS, the School-Wide Information System, based on the first-class collaboration suite. By the end of my ninth grade in 1995, every student in the school had an email address, which we could use on the Mac LC 475s and Mac LC 520s in the Cutler computer lab. Somewhere between a BBS and a social network, the system allowed students and faculty to interact electronically with message groups on arbitrary topics in what was then a very novel way.
One of these groups was on food. Frequently, vegan advocates would argue for veganism, something they are well known to do. Their argument, which was not unfair, was that people should not eat meat without knowing where it came from, that it was not justifiable to eat meat if one was not part of the process of how that meat ended up on one's plate. Being lifelong homesteaders, my parents Joe and Sheila—any nearby Australians may want to take note of their names—were among the runners-up for Mother Earth News' Homesteaders of the Year back in 2012, so I knew a thing or two about where meat came from.
My whole life, we have raised our own meat, vegetables, eggs, and so forth. Today, in our multi-generational household, we produce around 80% of the food we eat, when we are not here in Ottawa, of course.
My argument, therefore, back to these vegan activists was always, “Here's my connection to meat”, and then I would go into detail, “Here's how to raise a chicken. Here's how to slaughter a chicken. Here's how to clean a chicken. Here's how to store a chicken and here's how to prepare a chicken.” Of course, this put the vegan activists in a really awkward spot. The general consensus and response from them on the SWIS message board was, “Nobody should eat meat, except David.”
There is the trouble. When a vegan, an activist, or someone who is against the seal hunt but will happily go eat a hamburger tells me, or you, Madam Speaker, or any of our colleagues here, or our families, or our fellow citizens, what we can and cannot eat, what we can and cannot produce, and what we should or should not do, they are making assumptions about who we are, what our experiences are, and what our realities are.
In my years since, it has been important to me to learn about other people's experiences and realities, to become that much more worldly, and among many other things, to understand what the seal hunt actually is, beyond my baseline high school instincts. I would invite others to do the same.
When people all over the world tell our communities, who for over millennia have become very much part of the ecosystem in our coastal regions, where managing the seal population does not only serve to feed a population directly but also ensures fish stocks can survive the voracious appetites of our fellow predators, that this particular hunt is wrong and must result in a social and economic stigma that has nothing to do with reality, I believe it is important that we use our technology to post on our worldwide information-sharing systems what our reality actually is.
The stigma has made it so that buying seal meat in a grocery store, or through a fishmonger, which should be possible, is not possible. I believe it is incumbent on people like us, parliamentarians, in our position of protecting the interests of our society and of our future, to respond in kind, to say, no, we do not accept that social and economic stigma based on no facts whatsoever but only on a perception and on a quick political whim, where there is no real need to worry about the realities over there in Canada. No, we do not buy the argument that sinking more ships than the Canadian navy as a protest against the livelihoods of our people is productive, fair, or justified. We will not put up with these attacks on a Canadian way of life, which goes back far longer than Canada as we know it.
It is very important for us to pass Bill S-208 and make May 20 National Seal Products Day to make a statement that we defend our people and their way of life, that we defend the livelihood of our people, that we will celebrate our culture, and that we want to see our products succeed.
The bill does not make a holiday. It makes a statement. It is a statement I am proud to make, proud to shout from the rooftops, and one I hope my colleagues will be proud to make as well.
Private Members Business, then, is a part of Parliament’s function that is of very high value, as real issues can be brought forward for real debate.
It is also flexible enough to tell unrelated stories to create a larger narrative.