I always remember a picture of my great-grandfather standing next to a pile of harp seal pelts on the heaving and unpredictable ice floes in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean off Newfoundland.
He is standing alone in the black-and-white picture, which was taken sometime before the First World War, wearing the same street clothes that he probably had on when he was picked out of a crowd of eager fishermen on the docks of St. John’s who looked to supplement their meagre incomes by joining the seal fleets each spring.
It was a dangerous job and, at the time, the sealing bosses never held training sessions on how to do it properly and safely, and no survival gear for working among the ever-moving ice floes was provided to the men.
Most of the fishermen, who became sealers for just a few weeks every spring, wore only the clothes and footwear that they had on when they arrived at the fleet, sometimes walking many miles from their homes over snow-clogged paths in late March to get there.
It was not unusual for men to fall in the freezing ocean in the cracks between the ever-shifting ice floes as they went in pursuit of the seals, and many never surfaced as the ice closed over them, while others froze to death on the ice after managing to climb back up, with no help at hand.
In one case that was immortalized in a book written by Newfoundland author Cassie Brown called Death on the Ice. More than 120 sealers froze to death in 1914 when a sudden snowstorm hit the area they were working in and their mother ship assumed they had found shelter on another ship during the tempest.
It was risky business, but the fishermen were typically poor and had big families to feed, so many jumped at the chance to join the seal fleets, despite the significant hazards involved.
If their ship was successful, the fishermen could make enough money to buy some of the fishing equipment they would need for the upcoming summer season, and sometimes even buy much coveted treats and clothing for their wives and children.
It was a different time, before the wearing of fur became taboo, and many Newfoundlanders, Maritimers and French Canadians in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had no qualms about taking part in the annual seal hunt.
Now that the international markets for the pelts have pretty much dried up, largely the result of people around the globe taking great exception to the manner in which the seals are killed, today’s hunt is a mere shadow of its former self.
I get that bashing a seal’s head in with a spiked spear may look pretty bloody and gruesome, but it was the best and safest way to conduct the hunt at a time when rifles among the sealers were rare.
The fishermen who did the killing really didn’t see much difference between the seals and the cod, herring, crab and lobsters they caught during the summer fishing season.
The herds of seals were just another resource that showed up on their doorsteps every spring that their ancestors, and the First Nations that had occupied the land before them, had taken advantage of for millennia.
When I look at that picture of my great-grandfather, I don’t see a baby seal killer; I see a family man who didn’t hesitate to do whatever was necessary to look after his wife and children, no matter how dangerous the task.