Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s 2016 documentary, Angry Inuk, is a story about the erasure and domination of Indigenous peoples by colonial powers. The film impassionedly defends the seal hunt industry by revealing how Western environmental and animal advocacy NGOs (e.g., Greenpeace, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International), have devastated the livelihoods of Inuit communities that rely on the industry for subsistence. The NGOs have destroyed the Inuit seal trade economy by successfully campaigning the European Union to ban products made from seals, despite allowing an exception for the trading of Inuit seal products. This reflection examines how the strategies carried out by Western NGOs to achieve their “victory” are rooted in colonial-capitalism, white supremacy and Eurocentrism, and therefore reinforces colonial domination. Below, I focus on a few strategies employed by the NGOs, as highlighted in the film.
One strategy is that the NGOs deliberately mislead the public with select imagery of seals. For example, one segment shows how the NGOs continue to use images of white-coated seal pups in their campaign advertising, even though the slaughter of white-coated seal pups has been banned in Canada for over thirty years. Another segment shows how images of seals “crying” have been heavily used in advertising by the NGOs to pull on the public’s heartstrings for effective fundraising. However, tearing has no known relation to cognitive or emotional response in seals, and serves only to protect their corneas from salt. Arnaquq-Baril also plays a 1978 interview in which Paul Watson admits that targeting the seal hunt and exploiting images of harp seals have always been the easiest way for NGOs such as Greenpeace to raise funds. At the time of the interview, Watson had left Greenpeace and founded his own Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Years later, Watson and Sea Shepherd have gone on to raise money using the exact same strategies targeting the seal hunt. This manipulative profit-driven fundraising and advocacy strategy fits into the existing nonprofit industrial complex, where the growth of NGO organizational capacities is prioritized and pursued by appealing to the sentiments of the settler-colonial population and the state.
Other parts of the film illustrate how NGOs invoke nationalist and colonial discourses by shaming the government of Canada for allowing the seal hunt, and appealing to European sensibilities in lobbying the EU for the ban. These strategies rest on the Western civilizational binary logic that defines accepted Western practices as “civilized” and non-Western practices as “savage” or “barbaric”. Tracing the NGOs’ actions along this logic illuminates why the mostly-white Western animal advocacy NGOs tend to exert a disproportionate level of aggression to end culturally-specific animal exploitations and killings practiced by people of color. Meanwhile, campaigns to challenge the infinitely more destructive and violent animal exploitation industries founded, upheld and propagated by their fellow whites (e.g. industrial animal agriculture that brutally slaughters billions of animals yearly) are carried out with less intensity and far more civility.
More importantly, if we interpret the exception in the EU ban allowing Inuit seal products to continue being traded through the civilized/savage binary logic, we see how the Inuit exception could have led more Members of the European Parliament to support the overall ban. That is, the MEPs did not vote to ban seal products because they thought killing seals was immoral or unethical; instead, the MEPs banned seal products because seal hunting was associated with the “barbaric” Inuit, who the “civilized” Europeans preferred to distance themselves from. Moreover, to uphold this European self-aggrandizing fantasy, it was important to deny the Inuit their voice and presence. Therefore, in all the NGO campaigns against the seal hunt industry, the commercial seal hunt has been whitewashed, or portrayed as predominantly white. Simultaneously, Indigenous seal hunters who depend every bit as much on the commercial industry to maintain the price of seal products, were completely erased as members of the commercial seal hunt. Effectively, the Inuit exception fixes the Inuit seal hunters and their cultures and ways of life in the past. The underlying message of the Inuit exception is that while the EU allows the Inuit seal hunters to continue their way of life, they could never expect to be part of a modern industry, because there is no place for the Inuit way of life in modernity.
In emphasizing these racist NGO strategies, Angry Inuk reveals the ways in which colonizers disintegrate Indigenous sovereignty through their good intentions to “save” others. This time, however, unlike the earlier colonizers who tried to save Indigenous peoples from so-called savagery through genocide and assimilation, the white animal saviours reproduce this colonial process (regardless of their intentions) by attempting to save animals. What many white animal saviours need to confront is a problematic drive to save every individual animal in denial of ecological realities and the necessity for some Indigenous peoples to kill other species for subsistence. White animal saviours should also own up to their unethical, institutionally racist practices of NGO campaigning.
To conclude, I identify two main lessons for animal advocates who strive to practice an intersectional, anti-oppression approach to animal advocacy:
1. We should explore ways to alleviate systemic violence and oppression against animals without reinforcing and perpetuating colonial domination, based on an understanding that much of the oppression against humans and nonhuman animals are rooted in colonial-capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and Eurocentrism.
2. Following the first point, we should expand our animal advocacy to include broader issues at stake (e.g. ecological destructions) and shift priorities of advocacy campaigns to align with anti-colonial struggles, to end the colonial-capitalist, patriarchal and white supremacist animal-industrial complex. For example, solidarity could be built to assist Indigenous efforts to defend land and water from industrial fish farms, ranching, factory farming, and other animal agriculture. In addition, resources should be contributed to support Indigenous efforts at defending wild animal habitats. As Arnaquq-Baril states in this overview of Angry Inuk:
“I wanted to draw attention to the fact that it is almost entirely our hunters that are the ones battling the uranium mine in the caribou calving grounds and the massive iron mine that is going to have shipping routes through narwhal calving grounds. Seismic testing that the Canadian government wants to do—it’s Inuit hunters that are fighting that fight. Bowhead whale hunters lobbied for a bowhead whale sanctuary. These are Inuit examples but that’s the truth around the world. There are indigenous examples around the world which show that people who live on the land and work directly with wild animals are the ones that are the planet’s guardians. Animal rights groups have attacked people who hunt wildlife. My argument is that those are the very people defending the whole ecosystem, not just the specific animals that they hunt. These animal rights groups and environmental groups have actually pushed us toward massive destructive resource extraction industries faster than we want to approach them.”
*“Complex” here takes on two meanings, both the psychological and cognitive meaning of a “saviour complex” related to beliefs of one’s role as a saviour, as well as the meaning of an “industrial complex”, denoting intricate relations between the state, ruling class and a given industry (in this case the industry of non-governmental/non-profit organizations).
Darren Chang is an animal advocate from Vancouver, British Columbia, Unceded Coast Salish Territories. At the time of writing Darren is a Master's student at Queen's University in animal studies and political philosophy.