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Petition calls for seal meat to be removed from Toronto restaurant

An online petition decries Midtown eatery Kukum Kitchen’s dishes that contain seal meat tartare.

Chef Joseph Shawana at Kukum Kitchen on Mt Pleasant Rd.

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Chef Joseph Shawana at Kukum Kitchen on Mt Pleasant Rd.

Activists are demanding that an Indigenous restaurant in Toronto remove seal from its menu.

An online petition, which had about 3,250 signatures late afternoon Wednesday and was published through Care 2, decries Midtown restaurant, Kukum Kitchen’s dishes that contain seal meat tartare.

“I support the Indigenous hunt and the Indigenous peoples rights,” said the petition’s author Jennifer Matos said in a written statement. “But I am against cruel and inhumane commercial slaughter. If your (sic) buying seal meat from the commercial seal hunt and not the Indigenous hunt you are not only supporting a cruel and barbaric mass slaughter, but you are not supporting your own Indigenous people.”

The Indigenous-inspired restaurant opened in the spring, serving regional food like elk, pheasant, venison and harp seal drawing the ire of animal rights activists, despite its strong cultural underpinnings to the Inuit.

“It’s trying to dictate what we sell,” said Chef Joseph Shawana of the petition and the backlash. “It pretty much ruined my whole Thanksgiving weekend. The amount of negative stuff that was coming out of this was really hurtful to the business, to myself and everyone around me,” referring to one-star reviews left on his restaurant’s Facebook page and vitriolic comments on the petition.

“I feel letdown by society as not as culturally educated as I thought people were,” said the 35-year-old, who’s from Wikwemikong First Nation, located on Manitoulin Island.

Seal tartare dish at the Kukum Kitchen.

Torstar News Service

Seal tartare dish at the Kukum Kitchen.

Much thought and personal history has been poured into each dish, Shawana said.

“I grew up on a lot of wild meat,” he said. “It’s pretty much the only thing in my freezer at home, other than bacon, obviously,” he said.

The restaurant is gearing up to release new menu items next week. Included will be two new harp seal dishes. Shawana said Kukum is the only restaurant in the city that sells seal.

The seals are harvested along the coast of Newfoundland and the industry is well-regulated, said Jonas Gilbart, sales representative of SeaDNA, which supplies Kukum, along with about 20 other restaurants across Canada.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans set annual quotas and last year the company met a small fraction of it, he said.

“Last year we harvested around 15 to 16 per cent,” said Gilbart. “Everything is done by the book,” adding that SeaDNA meets standards set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Harp seal populations are healthy, according to the departmental website, and number about 7.4 million animals, up by about six times the levels gauged in the 1970s.

While Gilbart says the youngest seals the company harvests are three months old, the petition states that 90 per cent of seals are killed between ages three weeks and three months.

“Every year there’s a hunt and the guys will go out there with rifles or a hakapik,” Gilbart said. “They’re either shot in the head, or clubbed in the head. The death is pretty much instant. It’s never glorious, never necessarily clean. It’s done as quickly and humanely as possible.

“Chef Joseph has done something that reflects his heritage. This is something we’re proud to support.”

A counter-petition defending Kukum was posted by author Aylan Couchie, who’s from Nipissing First Nation. By late Wednesday afternoon, the petitioned garnered about 3,100 signatures.

“It was mostly about supporting Joseph, so he didn’t get bumped from animal rights activists around the world ganging up on a startup Indigenous-owned restaurant,” she said.

She added that the anti-fur and anti-sealing movements have jeopardized First Nations ways of life.

“It’s stuff that Indigenous people encounter on a regular basis,” Couchie said. “There are often misinformed and misguided perceptions. I was frustrated that this was another thing we must address.”

Couchie’s actions elevated Shawana’s spirits, he said, adding that the surrounding neighourhood has remained faithful.

“We’ve been an open door since we opened this place,” he said.

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