Friday, May 29, 2009

Bloodthirsty Canadians

When I first moved to Montreal, I was surprised to see so many people wearing fur. Not a majority, of course, but far more than I saw in Vermont despite the similar temperatures. It became clear to me that fur is not murder in Montreal and not in Canada (although I still have a hard time distinguishing some of the features/cultures of life here that are Quebec and those that are Canadian--more in a future post). But, as Kids in the Hall remind us, fur trapping is part of Canada's history, a key part of its origins. So, I think I understand better than I did seven years ago why Canadians get so upset when the rest of the world protests the annual Seal Hunt. Or, as I call it in my Intro to IR class, Seal Clubbing (it is a wonder that my teaching evaluations are not negative).

The hunt is again in the news because of EU efforts to boycott seal products and because of some symbolic politics. The Governor General [who is, technically, the head of state and the commander in chief (in lieu of the Queen)], Michaƫlle Jean, snacked on a seal pup heart as part of a celebration of Nunavut's tenth anniversary as a discrete governing unit. Canadians, when defending the hunt, position themselves as defenders of a key first nations (referring to the indigenous peoples of North America) tradition. Of course, it is also a significant business for parts of Eastern Canada (Quebec, some of the Maritime Provinces), facing much EU criticism these days.

Indeed, when asked why she did it, the GG said: "Take from that what you will." So, yes, she was sending a message. But, other GG's have participated in similar rituals, so this should not be surprising.

I was surprised a few years ago when Paul McCartney become persona non grata in Canada because his wife at the time, Heather Mills, protested the seal hunt. Only after his divorce was he again accepted by Canadians (despite the fact that he is still not a huge seal hunt fan). But that controversy proved to be educational. Hunting and trapping is one of the few historical and cultural processes that bind all Canadians--anglophone and francophone. While Western Canadians may be a bit less enthusiastic about it, the right to hunt and trap fur seems to be, dare I say it, as widely accepted up here as the right to bear arms is in the US. Ok, perhaps that is over the top, as there is less opposition to the seal hunt here than there is activism for gun regulation in the US.

The portrayal of the EU boycott is quite interesting as the local reports how devasting the sanctions will be, despite the reality (cited in the same paper) that the market for Seal products is not the EU but elsewhere (Russia, Japan, China, etc), and that the seal industry really is a small part of the regional economy. Of course, as I lecture in my intro class, this is yet again a story of concentrated pain--that those who suffer from a decline in the seal industry will feel the pain intensely and will have good reason to mobilize politically--and their small size actually facilitates collective action. Tapping into a component of Canada's identity inflates the political power of this small group, just like other small but disproportionately influential lobbies around the world.

To understand such stuff does not require suspending our models of rational political behavior, but does require some appreciation for symbolic politics and national identity. Does this mean my latest book, which considers how instrumental political behavior interacts with national identiies, can explain the Canadian bloodlust for seal clubbing? Uh, no. Plugging my book here would be gratuitous.

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