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Cultural Sensitivity and Arctic Dogs

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: February 14, 1999

        "Cultural sensitivity" - what is it, and can we really accomplish it when the going gets tough? A situation exists right now in Montreal that is testing the concept as it applies to the Inuit.

        Just over 2 weeks ago, a teacher in the small Inuit village of Kangirsuk, in northern Quebec, heard that the people were going to be shooting loose dogs to bring the population back under control. She had not heard of this practise before, and was shocked, as are most people who have never been in a Northern village.

        The Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) got involved, and despite their tight budget, spent almost $4,000 to fly 6 of the dogs from Kangirsuk to Montreal, where they will eventually be put up for adoption.

        This morning's on-line edition of the Ottawa Citizen has an article (now gone) which quotes Gary Dilallo, an experienced rescuer of Northern dogs. I spent almost an hour on the phone with Gary a few days ago, and he is committed to stopping any further rescues from Northern communities.

        "Dog culling" is a traditional practise in the North, going back into the mists of time, and is still widely practised today by both Natives and whites. It's use depends of course on specific triggers at various times - disease, genetic problems, food supply, injuries and so on. In some cases, outbreaks of disease would result in the canine population of entire villages being killed, usually by the Mounties and Special Constables (Native employees sworn as officers).

        The "dog-shooting" days, however, are a fairly new invention, resulting from "iron dogs" (snowmobiles) taking over the dogs' roles. With dogs increasingly being seen as a liability instead of a source of pride, the level of care of course plummeted, as did their "disposability" factor.

        The villages used to get the police to shoot the dogs, but about 15 years ago the police started refusing, partially because the young officers, mostly new recruits from cities, couldn't deal with it, and partially in an attempt to force the communities to "clean up their acts" in respect to dogs. It has worked to a large degree - the problem is only a fraction of what it was even 12 years ago when I first visited an Inuit village.

Joe, my gorgeous Siberian husky, at home in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory         Most villages got their dog populations down to a reasonable level (whatever that means!) in the late '80s, but many seem to be sneaking up again, and I think that the occurrence of "dog-shooting days" is on the rise again. This is partly due to the heavy promotion of "dog-sled tourism" by all 4 Northern governments - a LOT of people are trying to get into the business, almost all of them unsuccessfully. When your tour business fails, what do you do with the 50 dogs that you've gathered with government encouragement and now can't support? (that's where my Siberian Husky, Joe, came from - he was going to be shot because he was a partner in a failed venture).

        Another culture's actions are not "wrong" just because you think they are. Most often, sensationalist remarks about "cruelty" only serve to alienate the people you would like to be "educated" to your way of thinking. What is cruelty? My definition includes taking a free-roaming Arctic village dog to Montreal where it will be traumatized and subjected to diseases to which it has no natural defenses.

      The National Post reported yesterday that

A $4,000 effort by the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to save six dogs from being shot in the Inuit village of Kangirsuk didn't have the desired effect earlier this week when the villagers killed many of the dogs left behind -- a move seen as a snub to southern sentimentality.

      The Inuit culture is both complex and highly respectful of life. However, the culture demands maximum efficiency, and impersonal allocation of scarce resources, and the killing of excess dogs falls within that allocation. It isn't that many years ago that infanticide was common, and elders would commit suicide when they got too old to contribute to the community's well-being (see Farley Mowat's "Snow Walker" for a generally-truthful account). From some stories I've heard, it still occurs in remote Siberian villages. The Inuit have survived because of their skill in those matters.

      Resource allocation may be at the crux of this particular issue, both for the SPCA and for the Northern communities. The SPCA cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars to save 6 dogs, and the rescue has been criticized by some as a media stunt that may now be backfiring on them. Virtually all Northern communities need better water systems, more nurses, more teachers, not a vet to come in and neuter the dogs every couple of years. A neutering program in hundreds of Northern villages would cost millions of dollars.

      When you weigh all the possibilities, what is the answer? Who is right? Is anybody right?

Update: February 18, 1999, the Montreal SPCA has stated that they will not get involved with Arctic rescues again.

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