TORONTO – There are many dishes on the menu at Kukum Kitchen that reflect chef Joseph Shawana’s upbringing on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island, but one in particular has attracted a great deal of controversy: seal tartare.
An online petition launched last week called for the Toronto restaurant to remove seal meat from its menu, stating that “seal slaughters are very violent, horrific, traumatizing and unnecessary.”
The petition has attracted over 4,500 digital signatures from around the world and prompted a slew of one-star reviews for the restaurant on Facebook and Yelp.
Toronto-based Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie launched a counter-petition in response, which has been shared by musician Tanya Tagaq and has nearly matched the support of the original campaign.
Lenore Newman, the Canada Research Chair for Food Security and Environment and author of “Speaking in Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey,” considers some of the practices in raising chicken and pork for consumption to be far more cruel — and far more common — than the seal hunt.
“Even if (the original petition) is well-intentioned, there are literally thousands of restaurants in Toronto that serve meat that is produced in much worse ways,” says Newman, adding that seal meat is an easy target for criticism because its roots are Inuit.
“I do think there is some underlying racism in our culture around other people’s food. In Canada we have this huge history of oppressing Indigenous cuisine, and telling Indigenous people how they should be eating.
“Controlling people’s food is about controlling them.”
The practice of hunting seal, whether for meat or fur, has been controversial for years. High-profile animal rights advocates including Pamela Anderson, Paul McCartney and Morrissey have criticized Canada’s seal hunt and imports of seal products are banned in the United States and the European Union.
Defenders of the seal hunt cite its economic and cultural significance, particularly in Inuit communities.
The author of the original petition, whose name is no longer attached but who has been identified elsewhere as “Jennifer,” said she was not singling out any specific cultural practice.
“Although this is an Indigenous restaurant, the seal meat comes from a commercial company called SeaDNA therefore has nothing to do with the Indigenous hunt,” she wrote online.
In her counter-petition, Couchie wrote that she disagreed with that assessment.
“After reading our emailed concerns, Jennifer’s response was to assure us that she is ‘not anti-Indigenous’ and stated that, ‘the slaughter of any being is wrong’ — which begs the question: Why is Jennifer N. targeting an Indigenous restaurant when there are literally hundreds of restaurants in Toronto that serve meat?”
Seal hunting advocates say that like any other commercial meat trade, the practice can be done ethically. In a statement shared by Couchie on Twitter, Shawana said he spent months researching seal meat suppliers before settling on SeaDNA.
“As an avid hunter I was taught at a very young age to respect the animals as a whole,” Shawana said.
He did not immediately respond to an interview request on Thursday.
Jonas Gilbart, a sales representative for SeaDNA, says the company follows a sustainable model and uses methods that are more humane than the ones used by commercial slaughterhouses.
“Without sustainability, we don’t have an industry,” Gilbart says.
Seal hunting is heavily regulated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Gilbart estimates that last year, SeaDNA only harvested about 17 per cent of the quota set by the government.
“We don’t harvest without knowing that we can actually utilize the animal,” he says.
Like Newman, he thinks there’s some degree of hypocrisy in animal rights advocates who protest the seal hunt rather than factory-farmed chickens or industrial abattoirs.
“If (seals) weren’t cute, we would probably have a much easier job.”