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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May, 2004, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Sealskin fashion to boost Canada's fur trade
By Pauline Mason
In Montreal, Canada

A young girl strides down the catwalk wearing a blue sealskin biker jacket worth 3,000 Canadian dollars (1,230).

Nunavut Inuit Collections fashion show
Sealskin is back in fashion
Welcome to the 22nd North American Fur and Fashion Exposition (Naffem) in Montreal.

Naffem is North America's oldest and biggest fur and apparel show.

It is a showcase for Canada's C$335m export industry.

This year the emphasis is on youth.

"A new generation of designers has re-interpreted fur," says event organiser and vice president of the Fur Council of Canada, Alan Herscovici.

"It's lighter, sportier and more colourful."

Sealskin back in fashion

The mannequins on stage show off the Nunavut Inuit Collections.

In addition to the pricey fur jacket, other items include a number of modern looking clothes, including a delicate bustier made from ring sealskin and leather, priced at C$900.

The collection was set up seven years ago as part of the Nunavut government's sealskin strategy to promote the native industry.

Elisapee Kilabuk is one of a growing number of Inuit designers working in sealskin.

The Nunavut Inuit Collections' co-ordinators Diane Giroux and Ingo Moslener run workshops in a range of remote Inuit communities, including Iqaluit where Ms Kilabuk lives.

Mr Moslener, who is also a master furrier, has worked with sealskin for five decades.

Nunavut Inuit Collections fashion show
Nunavut Inuit designers would like to export more fur
He teaches the Inuit designers modern production techniques, such as machine sewing, finishing, dyeing, processing and sizing to European quality standards.

"These are products we could sell providing the market opens up now in Europe, Russia," says Mr Moslener.

"America is a big market but, unfortunately, that's where it's blocked."

The US currently bans the import of sealskin products, though 90% of Canadian fur from other animals heads south of the border.

"I learn more tricks from [Mr Moslener], like beading when I make a backpack or purse; a lot of people like them, I get better prices," says Ms Kilabuk.

One of her medium-sized, beaded rucksacks sells for C$250 while mittens cost C$150 a pair.

"I would like to sell more outside Nunavut, if I'm able," she adds.

Divided charities

The Canadian government's policy of increasing the cull to up to 350,000 harp seals a year sparked a ferocious response by animal rights activists.

Canadian seal hunt 2004
Animal rights campaigners insist seal hunts are cruel
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) spearheaded the protest:

"The most important thing we do is educate the public about the cruel origin of seal products," says the head of Ifaw's seal campaign, Rebecca Aldworth.

"We urge them not to allow this product on the marketplace."

But, the globe's biggest animal conservation charity WWF - which has been attacked by Ifaw and other activists for refusing to back their campaign - defends the hunt.

WWF has been monitoring this year's seal hunt says the organisation's Dr Robert Rangely. "It's a well managed hunt... right now there is no conservation issue."

Even the environmental group Greenpeace, which led the anti-sealing campaigns of the 1980s, says the campaign is no longer a priority issue, though it supports IFAW and remains opposed to seal hunting.

Meat not murder

And yet, there are fears that the animal rights lobby could threaten native people's livelihood.

"I'm very worried by the damage they can do to native people like Inuit seal hunters; in just a few years they've killed a market," says Thomas Coon, the leader of the Cree Trappers Association (CTA).

"I'm worried they're going to kill our economy, our culture, our way of life."

Paris Hilton wears a Humane Society of the United States "Club Sandwiches Not Seals" sports jacket
Do people like Paris Hilton pose a threat to traditional living?
The Cree are native to Canada, a "First Nation" people. They have lived off the land in northern Quebec for centuries, travelling on traditional sledges and camping out in tents.

They still do, although these days they use snowmobiles to get about.

For them, beaver and bear meat are delicacies. Muskrat and squirrel are everyday foods.

Bone, sinew, fat and fur are tools, thread, fuel and clothes. Even wolf and fox meat are used as trap bait. Nothing is wasted.

Mr Coon blames the anti-fur movement for displacing people from the land by destroying their traditional markets.

"I see young first nation people taking their lives. They feel they have no future, many think all there is to do is take drugs and drink alcohol," he says.

"We must preserve our economy, our markets and keep people on the land."

Ifaw is dismissive of the argument.

"We don't oppose native subsistence hunting," says Ms Aldworth, who is particularly opposed to the non-native commercial sealing industry, but "it is an unacceptable use of real problems facing the native community to justify a trade the world despises".

A bigger piece of the action

The retail fur clothing market was worth $11.3bn (6.37bn) in 2002-3, registering its fifth annual rise in a row, according to the International Fur Trade Federation.

Much of that rise reflects demand for wild fur, as opposed to European farmed mink.

It is becoming increasingly popular, as reflected by a 20% rise in wild fur prices this year.

Rap stars P Diddy - Sean Combs - and Mr Biggs - Ronald Isley - have brought out clothes ranges in coyote and fox fur.

Canada remains a major player in the wild fur market. The trade contributes C$800m to the Canadian economy.

But at the moment, only about 3% of that goes to native hunters and trappers.

Indeed, work to promote and market native furs is opposed by some sections of the native community, in particular when commercial methods are used by hunters.

MSP backing Scottish seal cull
18 Apr 04 |  Scotland
Canada completes main seal cull
14 Apr 04 |  Americas
Seal hunters facing legal action
13 Apr 04 |  Cornwall
Canada seal hunt draws protests
13 Apr 04 |  Americas

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