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The Politics of Fur: A Historic Article by Earl Empey

Yukon MP Audrey McLaughlin has been fighting the anti-fur lobby in England. Reporter Earl Empey Recently spoke with her about her on-going efforts on behalf of trappers.

EE: Can you tell me what is happening with the fur industry in Britain?

AM: Basically what's happening is that the British Government, or the Trade Minister in Britain, wants to bring in really what's called an order, its like a law or regulation to label fur products. A label that says “Some of the fur used in this may have been caught in a leg hold trap.”

And this is in response to a very strong lobby in Britain by animal rights groups who have a really well funded campaign to discourage people from buying fur. They've concentrated some of that campaign on leg hold traps. What the British Trade Minister is saying is that this regulation that he wants to bring in is sort of the least response he could make I spoke with him about 3 weeks ago when I was there. However, I think people in Canada, myself, and many others feel that if this goes through trapping will end up like the sealing industry protests. That started off with some publicity movie stars involved and so on... and everyone initially thought it would just die out.

The particular regulation that he wants to bring in is about leg hold traps. It's really not an anti-trapping issue, it's an anti fur issue, it's an anti fur issue. Which is a whole lot of difference. That's why fur ranchers, fur trappers, and the industry as a whole has gotten together on this issue, because that's how they see it, they don't think it's just an anti-trapping issue.

Now, I don't know if you are aware, but, for 7 years I ran a fur farm, in Ontario, a long time ago, but I still know a little bit about it. Now they were supposed to bring in this regulation on May 13th. There's been a lot of protests from the Canadian Government, and individuals i went to Britain May 17th 18th and 19th to do lobbying because i was told by the people there that they were going to bring it in on May 20th. While I was there they postponed it again, so this hasn't been brought before the British Parliament yet.

EE: What's your position on this?

AM: At my own expense, I flew to London to lobby against this fur labelling, so that's my position. So I've been quite strong in the House of Commons, pushing the government to take some action. I sponsored an emergency debate on the whole issue last week, and there are very few emergency debates in the House of Commons. It's very rare to have one, and we got one on this issue, so that was quite good, to get it out publicly, and get it on record.

EE: Do you think animals have rights?

AM: I think that there's a difference between animal rights and animal welfare. I think that it's clear traditionally and historically that aboriginal people who have lived on the land, have a very clear understanding of animal welfare. And in fact, as you know better than me, in lots of the legend, it's a part of oral history, as you know. And the respect for animals, in my understanding as an outsider to the culture, is certainly deeply ingrained in the culture.

We have a lot of laws in this country which protect animals from abuse. I certainly don't think anyone should be allowed to abuse animals, to starve them or keep them in situations that are unclean or whatever. So I think there's a real distinction between that and animal rights groups, the most radical of which say animals shouldn't be used for anything.

As far as trapping goes, I think when you present the trapping issue as renewable resource harvesting, that's a really different argument for many city people who simply see trapping as exploitation. In other words (city people feel) you go out there, you take out all the animals and leave. Well most trappers live on the land. So it's hardly in their interest to kill everything and get out, because where would they go? That's their home. And that's the same for aboriginal and non- aboriginal trappers, who have that same sense of respect for the resource, because if they trap out the resource they don't have any business.

EE: This looks like a turn-around as we mentioned before, it's not us exploiting, it's them, they came over here and exploited us, they traded a few trinkets and whatever, and then took the furs back to England and sold the furs for money.

AM: Exactly, and now they're trying to put in a law, again it's a very colonialist thing, I mean at one point in history, they saw Canada as a colony where they could exploit everything, take everything out. Now in a way it's teaching us a different kind of colonialism, “Now we'll teach you how to be nice to animals, because we've had our fill”.

The Order specifically talks about leg hold traps, but pretty well everyone I talked to who was in favour of the labelling in Britain was anti-fur. It wasn't just the labels it was just the traps.

EE: Didn't Britain introduce the leg hold traps?

AM: You might be right, I have no idea, in fact you're probably quite right because it's a very old trap. They use a lot of traps. I just read a letter to the editor by the head of the Canora Trappers Association and he identified himself as an ex-Englishmen and said they use traps for all kinds of things: gophers, rabbit snaring, small animals for a variety of reasons.

As you know Canada has the probably the foremost trap research that's going on in anywhere in the world. The Fur Institute of Canada receives funds from the Canadian government to do trap research. They're looking at things like the conibear trap and the padded leg hold. Now, the problem is, as trappers know, those aren't suitable for trapping. There's a trap replacement program in the Yukon. In Ontario they can't use the leg hold trap.

EE: how huge is the opposition to fur labelling?

AM: I think quite frankly it's not on everybody's mind. Fur labeling is small potatoes for most politicians. I mean their talking about nuclear war, submarines.

EE: Now that's What should be against the law.

AM: Exactly. It would be very nice, if all those people who want to spend all their energies on this would spend it against that.

So, I think my sense of being in Britain and I was there for a very short time, is that for most politicians it's what i would call a throw away issue. You know like “I'm not going to really bother fighting about that.” they don't care. Some feel very strongly, anti-fur. And some that I met feel very strongly, anti-fur. And some that I met feel very strongly that this is a very bad measure for Britain to do.

You see politically, what it does is it leads to other things. So if you're a politician and you say” Well, just to keep those guys quiet, I'll go along with having a law to label, identifying that this may have been in a leg hold trap, and that'll shut everybody up.” Well it won't shut everybody up because in a way, that's a win. You have to remember that the animal rights groups in Britain the extreme animal rights groups, have bombed stores. I mean we're not talking here about little pickets with signs, they're a very radical group. They have those ads with the fur coats with blood dripping all over. They are very serious. But if they go along with this then the next step could be anti-fur. The next step could be not using animals for medical research. Now, if it weren't for the use of animals in medical research, millions of people would be dying of diabetes all over the world. We have to make a choice. If we live in harmony with animals without not necessarily abusing them, I think that's a very different point.

In Britain, for example, one of the favourite sports of the richer people is the fox hunt. Well surely that's just as crazy as anything. And in fact there was a great cartoon in the Whitehorse Star which I cut out. It had a man co9ming in through immigration and he looked obviously English, a stereotype I guess, and he had a label on him that said, “this man may have been in a fox hunt.”

In this country the animal rights groups, on May 19th began a campaign on the trapping-fur issue. It received a lot of publicity in Toronto, but not so much in the north. I've talked to the Inuit, the Tungavitkan, obviously in the NWT, the Dene and the people here. And even people who aren't involved in trapping, and there are a few people who I've talked to who sort of say “Well I don't think its such a good idea but, you know, I'm not really opposed, but I just think...” But down south, my impression is that maybe the animal rights groups are going to launch a much more spectacular campaign. In the House of Commons the politicians are fairly united on this issue, in support of trappers. The media is also. I've done a lot of work with the media down south on this issue, like the Globe and Mail, and the major papers. They've all had at one time or another, editorials condemning the British, in support of the trappers.

EE: How many people are for fur labelling?

AM: I don't know in Britain? The radicals? Probably most of them don't care. It's one of those issues that most people don't care. You've probably got a very, very strong group who care very much, a big letter campaign who want to see the labelling. And then you've got a group who are against it for a variety of reasons.

It is not just a simple issue of furs or no furs. It's an international trade issue. That's where you get into a little more hard ball.

USA is Canada's largest trading partner Britain I think is the next largest. So we trade a lot of things. They didn't consult with the Canadian government. So this is one of the reasons why the Canadian government is upset. So it's become a “Trade Irritant.” So whether they're in favour for the trappers or not is a whole other separate issue. So they're very unhappy, diplomatically, on how this was handled. But it has larger implications because of international trade. It has large economic implications and in Canada, this is a 600 million dollar industry. There are 105000. It is a big issue. There's a lot of things at stake here.

I received a letter from Margaret Thatcher the other day, where she again says that they feel that this regulation will just be a very small little response to the lobby from from the animal rights group. And the trade minister said that to me. I said “Well then why do it? I mean if it's not going to hurt anything”. Well if it's not going to have any effect then why do it?

There's also an organization called the International Trapping Standards Organizations to which Canada and 17 other countries belong. But Britain has refused to join. So what we're saying to them is :Hey you guys, if you're so worried about whether traps are humane or not, wouldn't it make sense to join all these other countries and develop some things?” So that's what we're trying for at least.

EE: How would it effect the fur industry all together?

AM: Well it would dramatically effect the whole fur industry. It's not just anti-trapping, it's anti-fur. It's a tricky issue, because fur is, in a sense, a luxury item. So the argument is “well people can find something else to do.” So you say, “what are they going to do? Tell me what they are going to do?” they say, “well they could start their own business”. Tell me what kind of business could they start?

The other big lobbying effort that hopefully is going on at the moment, and something that I have done, is also to talk to the big investors in Canada, the British investors. Because when I went to Britain, I met with the manager of British Petroleum in London. They have very large holdings in the NWT and the Yukon, oil and gas, mining. They know that in order to proceed on a lot of those issues they have to negotiate with the Native people.

So one of the tactics that we've been using and that the Fur institute has been using and hopefully ISI, is to lobby the major British foreign investors in Canada. Say: “You guys should put some pressure on your government.” To tell them what the Canadian people think about this and how it's going to effect your business. Because it is something that they should be aware of and certainly when I talked with British Petroleum they were not aware of the concerns we have.

EE: Is this the tip of the wedge?

AM: I think that that's what the concern is. That it would be the beginning of the end of the fur industry. Now, some people would say, good, terrific, That's what we'd like to see happen.

EE: So a total ban is possible?

AM: Sure, and if not a ban then just a consumer turning away. I mean with the seals, many of the countries banned the importers of the seals. So sure, it could happen. I understand in one sense you have people who buy fur products, who are fairly well do to. At the other end you have people, like trappers, who sure don't make a jillion dollars a year. But it's a lifestyle thing too. It's what you choose to do. One of the points that I did make with several people who were interested in the wilderness, Canada's great wilderness up here in the north, is point out that people like trappers are very important in preserving the wilderness.

If your long term goal is preservation of wilderness, you know the Inuit, for example have lived for thousands of years without destroying the environment.

A lot of these things fit together, nothing is ever just separate by itself, you know? That's always been the great difference, or problem in lack of communication between Native people and non-native people. In traditional native culture is a much more holistic approach in that things aren't in little segments. Whereas as in my culture, we tend to separate everything off. This is an example of a real culture difference.

Now there are many non-native people living off the land who understand that as well. I mean trappers or farmers. But you'll find that many of the lobbyists, animal rights groups are city people, who as somebody has said think that shoes come from Italy, and groceries come from a grocery store. The other thing about labeling is it could become really ludicrous. Do I label my leather shoes? You know these were made from a cow whose throat was slit?

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