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Sealskin marks protest on Parliament Hill

Sealskin marks protest on Parliament HillInuit students pose in sealskin jackets during a rally on Parliament Hill Tuesday March 18, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA - Inuit youth clad in traditional sealskin garb used Parliament Hill as a catwalk Tuesday for a fashion show to protest the World Trade Organization's recent decision to uphold a European Union ban on imported seal products.

Students strutted to the beat of techno music before a gathered crowd of about 100 people, twisting like runway models to show off their authentic sealskin jackets with elaborate fur trim.

"We're very much in favour of hunting seal," said Terrie Kusugak, a student from Rankin Inlet who helped lead the rally.

"They have slaughterhouses full of cows, pigs and chickens. But it's not OK for us to hunt our seal traditionally, which is why we feel this cultural prejudice: they're allowed to slaughter their animals and we're not allowed to harvest ours?"

Canada's National Inuit organization, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, as well as students from the Ottawa-based Nunavut Sivuniksavut training program organized the rally.

It came on the heels of recent efforts by Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, herself an Inuk, to appeal the landmark decision by the WTO, which she said was wrong to cite moral grounds in its ruling late last year.

Aglukkaq wants the ruling struck down because it unfairly discriminates against Canadian seal hunters while allowing the EU to ban products from any type of business that involves the killing of animals, including the beef and poultry industries.

On Tuesday, several of the protesters on hand for the Parliament Hill event carried signs with a photo of two Inuit hugging a calf with the words, "Save the Baby Veal, Avoid Cultural Prejudice."

Seal hunts are a time-honoured Inuit tradition that involve a vital food source in an Arctic ecosystem with little arable soil for crops, Kusugak said.

"The knowledge is passed down from generation to generation and there's that direct link to your history and your grandparents," she said.

"There's a very deep connection when you're out hunting."

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami maintains the real objective of the ban is to destroy the market for Canadian seal products.

"Inuit should be able to engage in free and open trade that is unrestricted by cultural and moral bias," president Terry Audla said in a statement.

"We are citizens of the 21st century and participants in a modern economy, and the EU's Orwellian trade obstruction is a relic of a distant era when lawmakers unilaterally determined the tastes of a nation."

The three-day WTO appeal hearing wraps up Wednesday and a final ruling is expected next month.

If Canada succeeds in having the ruling overturned, the European Union will have the option of amending its legislation or offering compensation to Canada and Norway.

If the WTO rejects the appeal, the Canadian sealing industry and Inuit groups will push ahead with a legal appeal that is working its way through the European Court of Justice.

The Fisheries Department says the seal hunt employs about 6,000 people on a part-time basis, virtually all of them in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The 2010 EU ban has hurt Canada's 300-year-old commercial sealing industry, which landed 38,000 harp seals in 2011, less than 10 per cent of the total allowable catch. About 70,000 seals were killed in 2012 and another 91,000 last spring.

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