January 13, 2010
BEIJING–The fur didn’t fly here Tuesday.
Instead, it strode down a Beijing catwalk without interruption.
The Canadian seal and fur industry brought its fashion designs to a premier Beijing fashion show yesterday, winning warm applause.
Had this been Europe there might have been cans of red paint hurled, incendiary banners held aloft, and outraged protest.
But this is China.
Here, where protests are banned and fur is popular, the show was a success – part of a larger strategy by the Harper government to work hand-in-hand with the Canadian seal industry to rebuild its challenged markets.
Canada was effectively thumbing its nose at the European Union Tuesday, the organization that banned the importation of Canadian seal products last year.
Instead, Canada has set about to woo the Chinese to open its gates to Canadian seal meat.
Shunned by Brussels, Ottawa believes China will do nicely as a replacement market and has tremendous potential, especially with its 1.3 billion people.
China already buys seal oil and fur from Canada. Meat would seem the next natural step.
And success might be at hand.
“We’re very optimistic we’ll be able to export seal meat into China,” Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea said here, following the fashion show featuring Canadian designs of sealskin and fur.
As she spoke she wore a ribbon of seal fur on her label, a sign, she said, of her support for the Canadian seal hunt.
There are two hunts per year: one in the Arctic held by Inuit, the other, larger one in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
More than 15,500 Canadians have seal hunting permits.
Shea said her delegation had good discussions with Chinese officials, as well as with importers who normally handle Canadian fish imports.
The Chinese don’t normally eat seal meat. They have a small number of seals in the country, but they’re protected.
Canadian officials said the Chinese would cultivate a taste for the delicacy – not a tall task given their prized and inventive culinary culture.
“We’re now at what we think is the end of a process of formally lifting those restrictions (on seal meat),” said Mike Pearson, director general of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who was part of the talks.
Neither he nor the minister, however, would predict when China will allow Canadian seal imports.
Shea arrived here Sunday on a 72-hour trip – her first to China – to attend the 36th China Fur and Leather Products Fair, and discuss fisheries’ issues with senior Chinese officials.
But developing the seal market appears to be her priority.
“We’d like to expand the market,” she said in an interview. “China has a huge population and very good potential as a market for Canada.”
Traditionally the Chinese were interested only in pelts, but in recent years they’ve begun buying omega-3 oils. Now there is research into developing a protein powder as well as the potential use of seal heart valves for transplantation into in humans.
“This (latter) is an exciting project with potential benefit to the entire world,” she said.
More and more researchers are looking at using the “whole” animal and they see “tremendous opportunity. Exports in Canada’s $13-million seal industry were valued at $10 million last year.
A Fisheries spokesman said Canada exported $1.1 million in seal fats and oil to China in 2009, while an unknown percentage in pelts went to the country after being manufactured into boots and other clothing.
Canada has seemed much more aggressive about standing up for the industry since last spring, when Governor General Michaëlle Jean ate a slaughtered seal’s raw heart while visiting an Inuit community near Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.
The event captured massive media attention at home and abroad.
Asked at the time whether she was doing it to send a message to the Europeans, Jean replied, “Take from that what you will.”
Said Shea, “It was a great show of support for the Canadian sealing industry.”
But no one has persuaded the EU to reverse its ban on seal products.
Today the government is appealing the European Union’s decision to the World Trade Organization.