A group of camo-clothed hunters roamed along a beach on Quebec’s Magdalen Islands one day this past November, settling themselves along a stretch of shore where grey seals were most active. Some carried rifles, another had a hakapik, which is a club used for harvesting seals.
That was how Aija Komangapik took part in seal hunting for the first time in almost 10 years.
“I’m really happy to be here to experience this because after about a decade of not doing this kind of thing, I think I was starting to get a little bit heartsick,” she said.
Aside from a few trips she took as a child, the 23-year-old Inuit artist has had few chances to participate in the tradition of seal hunting.
“I spent half my life in Iqaluit and then the other half I spent in the province of Quebec,” she said. “I didn’t have much opportunity to hunt when I was very young… so I did appreciate this opportunity because it just felt like something I needed.”
It was also Komangapik’s first time using a hakapik.
“It went pretty well,” she said. “All you do is you hit it over the head.”
The trip was part of a new cultural exchange project between the Magdalen Islands and the Inuit community of Ottawa, called Reconseal Inuksiuti, which aims to promote reconciliation by celebrating both Indigenous and non-Indigenous seal hunting traditions.
Komangapik herself designed Reconseal’s logo, which depicts a harpoon crossed with a hakapik behind the image of a grey seal.
Her father, Nunavut sculptor Ruben Komangapik, and Yoanis Menge, an author and photographer from Quebec, are the founders of the new project.
“We are stepping up to the plate and doing a real reconciliation through this animal,” said Komangapik. “Hopefully, everyone else in this country could get inspired by that.”
The idea for the project was hatched while Menge and Komangapik, who are longtime friends, were on a hunting trip on the Magdalen Islands in late September 2021.
They killed a seal on Sept. 30, the first-ever National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
“He even took all his clothes off to his underwear and went in with a gaff,” recalled Komangapik. “He gaffed it and pulled it to shore, and we all had our orange shirts. He took a picture of us with the seal open like the way they do here, so it started off like ‘hey, we’re really recon-sealing reconciliation,’ so that’s how our company got its name.”
They donated about 700 pounds of harvested meat to Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a resource centre for urban Inuit based in Ottawa.
Some of it was served at a ceremony on Nov. 7 when an Ottawa park was renamed in honour of Inuk artist Annie Pootoogook, said Komangapik.
In addition, harvested seal skins were donated to a Isaruit Inuit Arts, a centre in Ottawa that promotes Inuit arts and culture, where they’ll be used to teach traditional preparation of seal skins, he said.
Komangapik, originally from Pond Inlet, moved to Quebec several years ago. He has long been known for his mixed media sculptures and for mentoring young Inuit people by sharing his vast knowledge of carving.
There are about 6,000 Inuit living in the Ottawa area, according to the Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada. Many don’t have regular access to traditional food, said Komangapik, which is how the idea of a cultural exchange with the Magdalene Islands really took hold.
Komangapik said the project will help fight food insecurity by providing a source of traditional food to urban Inuit, which will improve their health and well-being.
“Exporting seal meat from Nunavut is way more expensive and plus there is food insecurity up there,” he said. “It kind of pushed me to start this.”
In addition, after seeing the excitement and engagement in his daughter Aija, and their friend Philip Anguratsiaq, who also came on the trip, Komangapik said, “It seems like both these two people that we have brought here are really enjoying it and feel more refreshed after being in the city situation.”
Anguratsiaq, a former municipal councillor from Hall Beach, recently moved to Ottawa where it’s well-nigh impossible to participate in seal hunting.
“Luckily they found me and I’m here now,” he said.
“They introduced me to this amazing experience. Where I grew up our main hunting animal was walrus so when I told them about my background, they decided to bring me here to the Magdalen Islands and it’s been a blast.”
Hunting practices differ between Nunavut and the Magdalene Islands, he noted.
In addition to warmer temperatures and much less ice, and grey seals, though extremely abundant around the Magdalene Islands, are rarely seen in Nunavut, he noted.
Also, “the way we cut and the way they cut, it’s very similar,” he said. “But in Inuit culture, we don’t take the tenderloin and when I got here, I learned that they take the tenderloin. It’s been an exciting experience.”
In addition, to ensure seals are harvested humanely, the group was obeying the three-step process for harvesting seals, as outlined by Fisheries and Oceans Canada: shooting or striking the seal with a club, checking the cranium to make sure it’s deceased and then bleeding the animal.
Through his ongoing photography and writing, Menge has charted the lives of commercial sealers in Atlantic Canada, in addition to Nunavik and Nunavut.
In a short film published by La Fabrique culturelle, Menge explained that seal hunting was an integral part of the local culture and economy while growing up in the Magdalene Islands.
However, he felt antagonized as global anti-sealing campaigns harmed both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities thanks to the boycotting of seal products.
Since then, much of his work, including a recent book Hakapik, has been devoted to humanizing the seal hunt and the people who rely on it.
Menge said this was Reconseal’s first trip so far, but he said he hopes there will be more in the future. He also said Reconseal, now a registered corporation, will involve both cultural exchange and the promotion of awareness of the sealing industry’s sustainability.
“It’s a very big resources that we have here around the islands,” said Menge. “In the future, we want to make work for people so they can get paid. And we want to have people on our team from the Magdalen Islands, from other parts of the North and from the city.”
Komangapik agreed that Reconseal and the grey sealing industry of the Magdalene Islands could have greater commercial potential in the future.
“The reason why I know that is because us Inuit love the stuff.”