At Wednesday’s swearing-in ceremony of cabinet ministers, Hunter Tootoo, minister of fisheries and oceans, wore a sealskin bracelet and a tie made of sealskin fur dyed Liberal red. Carolyn Bennett, minister of indigenous and northern affairs, wore a sealskin bracelet.
"I saw that," sealskin accessories designer Tracy Hayley says about Tootoo's accessories. "A gorgeous red tie, and a bracelet as well."
Their fashion accessories show products made from harp and other seals have moved beyond heavy coats and seal flipper pie.
Hayley of St. John's, N.L., started her sealskin accessories company, Sealed With A Kiss, about four years ago after finding a piece of sealskin jewelry her mother had purchased in the city in 1960. She wished similar items were still available, and decided to make them herself. She now sells her jewelry, hats and other accessories in 47 retailers from Ontario to St. John’s.
"I wasn't surprised because I saw the beauty in it and I honestly believed that other people would see the beauty as well,” Hayley tells Yahoo Canada News of the widespread response to the items.
Some of the products made by Nunavik Creations, a Quebec company that incorporates modern and traditional indigenous elements into their pieces, appeal particularly to young people, designer Victoria Okpik tells Yahoo Canada News.
“Our anklets and leg warmers appeal to a younger age group,” Okpik says. “I think it's more trend driven. Sealskin leg warmers are not that cheap.”
Canada allows both a commercial seal hunt of six species and traditional subsistence hunting for indigenous Canadians. The majority of the hunt takes place off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The hunt has strong support in that province, in the north and among indigenous Canadians — and products like sealskin accessories are a way to marry that support with both old traditions and new trends. Nunavik’s products source pelts largely from Newfoundland and Labrador, Okpik says, but are sewn by Nunavik women. The pieces generally either use indigenous elements in modern designs, or bring contemporary touches to traditional pieces like sealskin mittens.
In addition to fur, oil and meat used within the country, Canada also exports seal products, largely to Asian markets. But seal harvesting remains controversial for many people, at home and abroad. Its arrival brings annual protests, and seal products like skin, meat and oil are banned from importation into major markets like the European Union and the United States.
And the hunt itself has also declined significantly in recent years, in part because of those restrictions. In 2012 about 312,000 harp seals were harvested commercially, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. By 2014 the annual take had dropped to 60,000, far below the allowable catch of 400,000.
However, pelts are not difficult to find, Hayley says. She gets hers mostly from Carino, a local processor. And because even the smallest scraps of sealskin can be used in her pieces, Hayley says her business is sustainable and helping to use as much as possible of the animal.
“If the animals going to be harvested for meat, for oils, for other reasons then obviously we want to be able to utilize 100 per cent of the animal,” Hayley says. “I can honestly say that I use 100 per cent of the pelt, and I do my part in using all of the animal.”
Hayley initially worried about the reaction she might get when she launched her business. She purchased a pair of sealskin boots about eight years ago, she said, but avoided wearing them out much in public because she was afraid of negative reactions. But she’s been pleasantly surprised by the positive response to her work, she says. Though she has fielded negative online comments because she uses sealskin in her pieces, she says it’s been far fewer than she initially expected.