How to fight the good fight, especially when it’s wrong

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Those picket-line-protesters who may worry that their shoe leather will wear out before the shale gas industry’s resolve does should cheer up after reviewing a World Trade Organization (WTO) decision this week – a decision some are calling a victory for the hard-scrabbling, morally superior little guy.

Of course, it is hardly that.

The WTO has simply upheld the European Union’s (EU) 2009 ban on imported seal products (meat, pelts, oil, etc.), which affects Canada most among the world’s pinniped-hunting nations (a small club that includes Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Namibia).

In its ruling, the organization allowed that while the prohibition probably violates at least the spirit of impartiality in global trade, it nonetheless “fulfills the objective of addressing EU public moral concerns on seal welfare to a certain extent.” What’s more, it added, “no alternative measure was demonstrated to make an equivalent or greater contribution to the fulfillment of the objective.”

In other words, consumers’ decidedly non-commercial interests can and do trump those, however legitimate, of producers, either small or large.

That’s good news to all the assorted rebels with various causes among us, though, naturally, none of this is sitting well with the federal government or Canadian sealers who are screaming about the dirty they’ve been done at the hands of a powerful, disingenuous protest lobby.

In a statement from Ed Fast, Minister for International Trade, Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment, and Gail Shea, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the trio declared, “On February 11, 2011, our government requested the establishment of a World Trade Organization dispute settlement panel to challenge the European Union’s unfair ban on seal products in order to stand up for Canadian sealers and to vigorously defend the interests of Canada’s Inuit and Indigenous communities.

“The WTO panel confirmed Canada’s long-standing position that the EU ban is discriminatory and treats Canadian seal products unfairly. However, the panel also took the view that such a ban can be justified due to some of the public’s concerns regarding seal harvesting. Canada remains steadfast in its position that the seal harvest is a humane, sustainable and well-regulated activity. Any views to the contrary are based on myths and misinformation, and the Panel’s findings should be of concern to all WTO members.”

The government, of course, promises it will press on with an appeal. But, realistically, this battle is over. The Harper government is not likely to threaten the stability of its freshly minted European trade agreement over an industry that generates few economic benefits for citizens who live south of the 60th parallel – i.e., most Canadians.

All of which provides several object lessons for less mature social agitations, the first of which is that the “facts” at one’s disposal need not actually be true.

The trick to winning hearts and minds in the seal debate was always steadfastly ensuring that the message of carnage and cruelty on the ice floes was front and centre and before the public. Even after the industry effectively cleaned up its act (to the degree that any mass predation can be absolved of moral ambiguity), the message never changed, a fact which truly bugged even some ardent environmental pioneers.

“We have to be logical,” Jacques Cousteau reportedly once said. “We have to aim our activity first to the endangered species. Those who are moved by the plight of the harp seal could also be moved by the plight of the pig – the way they are slaughtered is horrible.”

The second lesson is that celebrities can vastly enhance a movement’s credibility.

In 2006, Paul McCartney and his then-wife Heather Mills, took Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams – who was linked to the show via a scratchy phone connection – to task over the annual cull. They called him by his first name and beseeched him, several times, to stop the killing. They were wrong on every account, every statement of fact. But, it didn’t matter. Subsequent polling showed that, in the eyes of the average viewer, they’d won the debate.

Was this sensible? Was this reasonable?

Who cares?

All’s fair in love, war and on the picket lines.

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