The story seen by viewers in Atlantic Canada near the end of CBC’s The National on Monday evening last week did not seem sensational. A royal commission on sealing, largely ignored during cross-Canada hearings last year, had completed a draft report. Citing a leaked copy, the network reported the commission’s findings: Atlantic seal herds were not endangered, and the traditional practice of killing seal pups with clubs was not inhumane, but the hunt for newborn “whitecoats” should be banned anyway because of widespread public opposition. Minutes later a bailiff entered the CBC’s Montreal offices with an injunction requested by commission chairman Mr. Justice Albert Malouf, a Quebec Court of Appeal judge. It ordered the CBC to drop the story from later editions of The National shown elsewhere in the country.
The resulting furore over press freedom—the court order was lifted within 36 hours—focused unexpected attention on the report and the fate of 7,000 seal hunters. Many of them have lost up to 50 per cent of their incomes, already well below national averages, since the commercial seal hunt ended in 1984. The seven-member commission’s inquiry, begun after the European Community banned the import of Canadian seal pelts, chastised Ottawa for failing to counter depictions of the seal hunt as barbaric. And the commissioners recommended that $120 million be set aside to compensate seal hunters in Newfound-
land, Quebec, the Maritimes and the Eastern Arctic. But in their central finding, the commissioners recognized that widespread public opposition made a revival of the seal hunt unrealistic. Even so, sealers welcomed what many considered vindication. Declared Mark Small, president of the Canadian Sealers Association: “We can say to the world once again we’re not cruel savage people.” Meanwhile, the controversy that greeted the CBC’s use of Justice Malouf’s leaked report, to be presented formally to the federal cabinet in September, seemed a fitting close to the often angry campaign against the seal hunt. Quebec Superior Court Justice Charles Phelan granted the injunction. He issued his broadcast ban after receiving a petition from Malouf, which argued that the CBC story might contain inaccuracies that would “induce the public into error.” Many critics found those grounds shaky at best. University of Western Ontario Prof. Robert Martin, a media law specialist, for one, denounced the injunction as “clearly wrong, just preposterous.” In the end, Malouf himself requested that the injunction be withdrawn. But the legal tempest bore a distant echo of noisier disputes earlier in the decade, when antisealing demonstrators sprayed dye on seal pups to spoil their pelts and sealers destroyed one protest group’s helicopter.
—CHRIS WOOD in Halifax with NORA UNDERWOOD in Toronto and PAT ROCHE in St. John’s
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