Distinguished American voices boom through the auditorium. One threatened species has rallied to the aid of another: the ancient great of Hollywood—Walter Pidgeon, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck—are on record deploring the annual hunt of the harp seal over the Newfoundland floes. Their challenge sounded, lights rake the stage for takers. Fike so many Davids defying Goliath, seven tatterdemalion youngsters wearing fishermen’s sweaters, granny glasses and funny hats swarm into a tiny, sawdust-strewn arena. Newfoundland’s answer to Greenpeace is on the road.
On paper, it looks the sort of lavish futility irate taxpayers love to imagine the Canada Council plotting deliberately. If ever there were a case of sending a boy to do man’s work, this seems it: sponsoring, as Canada’s reply to world criticism of the seal hunt, a national tour of an artless little revue by the Mummers Troupe of Newfoundland. Watching their frail circus set off across Canada to meet the annual spring storm of protest against the sealers— though they played to their own, right in St. Anthony, where the seal hunt began in mid-March—is like watching seven fisherboys launch a leaky dory into the teeth of an Atlantic gale.
At first sight, they seem to have nothing on theirside butyouth and high spirits. Fike most groups of their kind, they lean heavily on clowning and mimicry. Their sketches, pawkily amusing, tend to be short-winded or whimsical. Their jokes, tactlessly if appropriately, are the kind which hit audiences over the head. As it turns out, however, they have one thing more in their favor: authenticity. Between gags and clumping round dances, they put over some ponderable facts. The average sealer earns, from all sources, less than $8,000 a year.
Banning the hunt would reduce his income between 15% and 30%, taking $5.5 million a year out of the depressed Atlantic economy. Most ecological authorities agree that, since imposition of quotas, herds are increasing by 2% per season. The goal of the hunt is not just luxury furs. Some 45% of its profit comes from meat and oil. But facts are less powerful than the feelings which the Mummers
hang about them in songs and vignettes of Newfie life. A fisherman’s wife begs a new dress for their son’s graduation. The only way her husband can afford it, and reshingle the roof, is by sealing. While he tries his fortune on the ice, his wife recalls how her father was lost on the floes, trapped by a spring blizzard. To them, sealing is a continuing folk epic which still lives and is part of being a Newfoundlander.
The bureaucratic folly is not so artless as it looks. Some shrewd eye in Ottawa or St. John’s (the Newfoundland government partially sponsored the Mummers’ tour) must have realized that, paradoxically, the further the homemade little show travels from the sea, the closer it may come to understanding. It embodies in miniature a work-culture startlingly similar to the one whose myth still rules inland North America: the Cattle Kingdom, whose heroic legends have done so much for the careers of Messrs. Pidgeon, Fonda and Peck. Until Greenpeace makes vegetarianism a condition of membership or pickets the beefy saturnalia of the Calgary Stampede, its concern for the seal pup looks dangerously like an emotional luxury, as pampering to the self-esteem as (say) a pair of sealskin slippers to the feet. RONALD BRYDEN
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