The other day, the Prime Minister’s wife, Laureen Harper, was at some event in Toronto to raise money for homeless cats. She has been active in the Ottawa Humane Society for years and, apparently, she also makes appearances for other Humane Societies. Due to her participation in these events, she has wrongly and incorrectly been labelled an “animal advocate.” She is no such thing. She likes cats and she likes parties. The event was disrupted by an activist who noted that supporting cats is a good campaign strategy for her husband, but isn’t supporting Native women a better campaign strategy? To her credit, the Prime Minister’s wife didn’t say anything especially stupid in response to the question, but she didn’t address it either. Predictably, online activists took this as yet another sign that Native women are not and will not get the support they need from the government, including an inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered Native women in Canada.
The problem with the response on the part of the activists is that they—both strangely and wrongly—believe that social justice activism is a zero-sum game. Either you can support cats or you can support Native women, but you can’t support both. By showing up at one event, but not the other, means that you condemn the latter. Perhaps this is true in the case of the Harpers (specifically) and the Conservatives (generally), but this isn’t a necessary conclusion. (If an activist attends an Idle No More event, but is unable to attend and Occupy Bay Street event, are they, therefore, saying that OBS is an unimportant movement? What if they attend the INM, stop by the OBS, but can’t make it to a pro-choice rally? Are they effectively anti-choice?) It is also odd because the Conservative government, under Harper’s direction, has made northern development a priority. While this development hasn’t, as such, emphasized improving the lives of Native peoples in the north, it has, as a side effect, led to heavy-handed and strange defense of the Native “seal hunt” and, by extension, of the Newfoundland “seal hunt.”
In attacking the Prime Minister’s wife, the “hashtag activists” find themselves in a rather incoherent position. One popular Tweet proposed the “white settler” Great Chain of Being: white men, white women, seals, native men, cats, native women. But, as has already been noted, the federal Conservative government is a staunch supporter of the “seal hunt” for both fur and meat. Perhaps their support is merely pragmatic: it throws a bone to angry Natives and former fisherman, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the Conservative government is fighting seal trade bans in the EU while promising lucrative Chinese markets for seal meat when it could be directing those resources to more important and productive ends, ranging from an inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered Native women to properly funding Library and Archives Canada.
No doubt, it is true that the seal hunt is unpopular among urban, white progressives and its unpopularity is global. It is so unpopular that even China, one of the most notorious animal abusing countries in the world, will not take seal meat. This is aside from the fact that literally no one considers seal meat to be edible. That is, beyond those ideologically committed to killing three week old seals, such as unemployed fisherman and “gourmet chefs” looking to cash in on a niche “adventure cuisine” market. None the less, it is true that white, urban progressives are largely opposed to the seal hunt. But it doesn’t follow from this that because one is opposed to seal hunting that one is also opposed to an inquiry into the missing women, proper shelter and clean water in Native communities, or addressing significant overrepresentation of Natives in the “justice” system.
Just because seal hunting is (said to be) a “traditional” Native cultural activity and because one opposes a particular “traditional” cultural activity does not mean that one is opposed to the betterment of the lives of those people who identify with that culture. The reasons for this are plentiful: culture is not monolithic and a single practice is not equivalent to an entire culture (if it is even possible to talk about an entire culture). The problem isn’t culture (although culture is little more than a frayed bandage pull over the gaping wound that is the nihilism the haunts the core of all social relations), but the defense of something like the “seal hunt” on the grounds that it is a traditional cultural activity. The reason for this is obvious: if a “traditional” cultural activity is defended on the basis of tradition alone—as is the case with the “seal hunt”—then all ostensibly “traditional” cultural activities must be defended on that basis because it is being maintained that tradition as such is an inherent good that overrides all other concerns. This leads to the absurd consequence that in slave-holding societies, slave-holding is morally justified because it is traditional; this leads to the absurd consequence that in “settler” societies oppressing Native peoples is justified because Native peoples have been traditionally oppressed. That is, given that historically speaking, the vast majority of cultures have been characterized by racism, sexism, and other odious beliefs that we must defend these for the simple reason that they are traditional. In other words, while culture might be comforting, it is not liberation.
The question then arises as to why these cultural activities such as “sealing” are so eagerly defended when a “culture” feels itself to be under siege. After all, we are in a new period of Native activism that was largely crushed following the disastrous Kanesatake stand-off and it is little surprise, therefore, that a people seeking to defend their culture would also defend the most odious aspects of that culture. When a culture feels itself to be under siege, it turns to its most stigmatized cultural activities in an effort to revaluate them in a positive light. Thus, “sealing”—and encouraging “settlers” to participate in the rituals of “sealing” by eating the raw still-warm heart of a seal like a pregnant Dothraki khaleesi eating the equally still-warm raw heart of a horse—is defended. We accordingly see the rise in “traditional” garments made of a variety of dead animals. Made, of course, using “traditional” things like factory-spun threads, synthetic materials, sewing machines, razor-sharp scissors, tape measures, and the like. It might feel like liberation to those participating in these activities, but we shouldn’t confuse this feeling with being progressive. It is regressive and nothing more.
To get back to my main point, which is twofold. First, animal rights and Native rights are not incompatible with one another. Second, it follows that animal rights activists and Native rights activists should work together (as we should work with other progressive, rights-based movements). How, then, are these two issues connected with one another? In response to the mostly asinine Tweeting on cats vs. Native women, I pointed out that cultures that rape cows (to get milk) also rape women; cultures that easily dispose of vulnerable animals (such as Laureen Harper’s cats) also dispose of vulnerable women; cultures that murder animals also murder women. There is a structural homology between the place of the animal and the place of the Native woman in Canadian society. Both are disposable. Both are worthless. However, morally speaking, neither are disposable and neither are worthless. In an important book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Carol Adams pointed out this connection: in effect, “meat” is what connects women to animals and men to the domination of both.
When activists juxtapose seals to Native men and cats to Native women they are are giving in to the same logic that juxtaposes white men to Native men and white women to Native women. The domination of chickens, cows, and pigs is no better than the domination of seals. It is only the weak, reactive, and violent who seek to impose themselves on the world through violence. Killing and abusing makes one feel powerful. After all, a life is in your hands. You get to play master; you get to play God.
A Native man slaughtering a seal is no better than a white man slaughtering a Native woman. Both are born out of the same desire to oppress, to humiliate, and to delight in sheer unmediated violence. The answer, then, is that, yes, not only should there be an inquiry into the missing women (and, yes, something needs to be done about the general treatment of Natives in Canada, whether they are the urban poor, the incarcerated, or on reserves), but something also needs to be done about the treatment of animals and the nearly one billion animals slaughtered for food in Canada each year. It isn’t that seals are worth more than Native men nor is it that cats are worth more than Native women; but cats and seals are worth no more and no less than Native men and women—and the same goes for black men, white women, and donkeys. The animal rights activist—of which Laureen Harper is no such thing—does not value the life of a seal more than the life of a Native man nor do they value the life of a cat more than the life of a Native woman. The animal rights activist sees all lives as equally valuable or, at least, equally possessing the right to persist in existence and not to suffer capricious abuse and violence at the hands of an oppressor.