Canadian sealers have won a tenuous reprieve from the European Union import ban on seal products thanks to a last-minute suspension announced just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked the ban as "a disgrace."
Canada is courting the EU in wide-ranging free trade talks but, speaking on Thursday in Miramichi, N.B., Mr. Harper cast aside diplomatic niceties in criticizing the ban, which was to take effect on Friday.
"This is flagrant discrimination against the Canadian seal industry, against Canadian sealers ... people who are doing animal husbandry, no differently than many other industries," he said. "It is a disgrace that they're treated this way in some countries based on no rational facts or information whatsoever. We strongly object to the [ban] We will continue to defend our sealers."
The president of the European General Court suspended the ban because a court case led by Canadian Inuit leaders in still under way.
National Inuit leader Mary Simon, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said it is unclear how long the suspension will last. But she welcomed the news and expressed hope that the EU Parliament will reconsider the ban.
The ITK is leading the court challenge, and Ms. Simon said many hunters want the political battle to continue.
"They feel it's immoral, it's illegal and they want us to fight it," she said over the phone from her home in Kuujjuaq, Que. "It's our livelihood. I don't think other countries should have the right to tell us what to do with our livelihood."
A spokesman for the EU in Ottawa declined to comment, saying he had not received an official position on the suspension.
Inuit have long protested against the EU seal ban, portraying it as a slap in the face to their traditional culture, in which seals are a dietary staple and an important source of clothing.
When the G7 finance ministers met in Iqaluit in February, Inuit officials from the Nunavut government ensured that the many uses of seal were on full display for the European visitors.
Critics of the seal hunt insist the focus in the dispute on traditional uses of seal deflects attention from the commercial seal hunt, which is run primarily by non-Inuit hunters off the Atlantic Coast. Animal-rights groups point out that the ban's original wording suggested the traditional seal hunts would not be affected.
Sheryl Fink, a researcher with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the suspension appears to be a minor delay.
"We're not discouraged," she said, insisting that the EU made the right decision based on the facts of the seal hunt and the opinion of its citizens. "I would hope that the Canadian government will listen to its citizens, who predominantly do not want to see a commercial seal hunt continued in this country."
Speaking to reporters on Thursday in St. John's, federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea praised the Inuit for their legal challenge."
This is a positive development," she said of the suspension. "The European courts have concluded that the Inuit have a right to be heard and the status quo will be maintained until they have been granted that hearing. ... We are confident that Canada's sealing industry can bounce back and will continue to benefit the thousands of Canadian families who depend on the hunt."