IQALUIT, Nunavut — French wine and British beer may no longer be stocked by Nunavut’s government-run liquor stores after a motion protesting the European Union’s ban on seal products passed in the legislature.
Nunavut’s cabinet ministers abstained from the vote last Thursday on whether to ban EU booze and Premier Eva Aariak said the ban could violate world trade agreements, but the motion still passed 9-0.
The man who spearheaded the boycott — in retaliation for the EU closing its doors on seal products — says he expects it will be enforced this summer when the territory orders its next alcohol shipment.
“Obviously they’re going to check into the legality of it, but I can’t see where it’s illegal,” said Fred Schell, who represents South Baffin.
“You’ve got to remember, we’re not making it illegal for people to order European liquor in Nunavut. They can still do it through a government permit and get it from Ottawa, Montreal and even Yellowknife. It’s just at the government liquor stores … we’re not going to sell the liquor.”
It’s not clear how much of Nunavut’s $1.4-million stock of alcohol comes from the European Union, but the ban won’t make a huge economic difference to producers, Schell said. It’s a symbolic way of protesting the European Union’s ban on seal products, similar to Canada’s boycott of South African wine in response to apartheid, Schell said.
The European Parliament approved a ban on seal products last year in response to animal welfare concerns from the public. Although traditional aboriginal hunts are exempt, Inuit groups say they will be affected nonetheless.
A coalition of Inuit organizations is challenging the ban in European court.
Schell said the issue doesn’t just affect people in the North. He’s heard from drinkers across the country who are also planning to boycott EU beverages to protest the ban on seal products.
“That was the whole intent of it, to get the message across that we’re not happy and it’s not just here in Nunavut. It’s in all of Canada, whoever is affected by the seal ban.”
Even though Schell has been congratulated by the territory’s premier for bringing international attention to the seal ban, it’s not clear Nunavut’s cabinet can or will enforce the booze motion.
Aariak has said the territory checked with Foreign Affairs and was told the Nunavut ban would be in violation of World Trade Organization rules “as it discriminates against EU products based on their origins.”
“It would also violate an agreement between the European economic community and Canada concerning trade and commerce in alcoholic beverages,” she told the legislature.
“Not only would such a moratorium open the door for complaints by members of the European Union against Canada, it may also be unhelpful to Canada’s World Trade Organization complaint with respect to the European ban on seal products.”
The motion could also be interpreted to go beyond alcohol to include all liquor commission purchases originating from European Union countries, she said.
“Potentially the liquor commission could not purchase office equipment or mobile equipment originating from a European Union country,” Aariak said.
“Nunavummiut are intelligent and capable of making their own decisions. Each individual has an opportunity, when making a purchase, to decide what they wish to buy. We would strongly encourage Nunavummiut to make that assessment when they purchase items such as liquor.”
Finance Minister Keith Peterson, who is responsible for the liquor commission, said lawyers are looking at the implications while bureaucrats take a look at the territory’s liquor inventory to see how much of an impact the ban would have. European brews make up a “significant amount” of the liquor commission’s inventory, he said.
A decision will have to be made relatively quickly, he added, since the territory has to order replacement stock shortly. The motion isn’t binding but the government is taking it as a “very serious” recommendation, he added.
“The seal ban in Europe is a sensitive issue up here and people in communities that harvest seal for commercial purposes were hard hit,” Peterson said from Iqaluit. “We’re cognizant of all that.”
John Ningark, who represents Akulliq, said his constituents harvest seals for food and tend to sell the skins as a byproduct to supplement their income. The EU ban’s impact on the Inuit has been largely ignored, he said.
“I believe that even a token gesture to retaliate, even if it is not substantial, will assist Inuit,” he said. “Our whole culture is under attack and many Inuit are hurt by this senseless activism by outsiders.”
— By Chinta Puxley in Winnipeg