YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES -- When several Eskimo hunters traveled to Montreal for meetings with government officials a few years ago, they shunned the city's first-class French restaurants and dined instead on the food they had brought with them -- a seal, which they skinned in the bathtub at their hotel.
The next morning, a chambermaid saw the blood-splattered bathroom and alerted her supervisors, who called the police. Translators were brought in and technicians conducted blood tests ultimately confirming that no human had been murdered.
The misunderstanding, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. commentator Alan Herscovi suggested in an examination of what became an animal-rights controversy, illustrates what can arise when native custom meets modern Canadian society.
The two cultures are clashing now in a less tractable conflict over the way Eskimos here stalk the wild game that roams the tundra of the Arctic region. Activist groups in southern Canada, Europe and the United States who succeeded in their crusade to "Save the Baby Seals" have expanded their campaign to include the protection of virtually all animals.
Some campaigners in Toronto, opposed to eating meat, have waged protests against Kentucky Fried Chicken stands. Others are campaigning against fur coats by depicting the leg-iron traps used to ensnare minks, foxes and beavers as weapons of torture.
Many here are afraid, remembering the campaign that ended the practice of clubbing baby harp seals to death and wiped out international markets for virtually all seal fur. As a consequence, the marginal, local economies of several Arctic communities were ruined. Hundreds of families of sealers and fishermen ended up on welfare.
Stephen Kakfwi, a member of the Northwest Territories legislative assembly and a leader of the Dene Indians in the western Arctic region, said the animal-rights people "are mostly upper middle class and have nothing better to do but to talk about the rights of foxes, monkeys, rabbits.
"It offends me to no end. I think they're totally insensitive, that they'd put such a fear into our people. So many of our people still depend on hunting and trapping."
John Sperry, the Anglican bishop of the Arctic, said he believes that if animal-rights groups succeed in bringing an end to the fur industry in North America, they will be guilty of cultural and economic genocide in the Arctic.
"I use the word 'genocide' with great care," the bishop said. "What these so-called animal-rights activists are doing to the native people of the north is really just that. If they could see what impact their cause has had on the lives of these people, the pain that these people are experiencing as a result of that cause, then I am convinced they would rethink their position on this matter."
Native groups have formed lobbying organizations, teamed up with furriers in Toronto and Edmonton and gained the support of the Anglican Church and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to respond to the animal-rights groups.
When the duke and duchess of York visited Canada last summer they were quite pointedly given fur coats and hats. When Pope John Paul II said mass at Fort Simpson near here in September, he received vestments made of caribou hide and a chair fabricated from moose skin and antlers.
The northern Indians and Eskimos, many of whom now prefer to be called Inuit -- "the people" -- also have argued their case on television and radio documentaries and in Canadian newspapers. The vigor of their efforts has clearly thrown some of the animal-rights groups off guard.
Mike McDiarmid, of Greenpeace in Toronto, which had agitated against the clubbing of the harp seal pups, said, "Native people were never the target of that ban. The ban was against white-coated pup pelts. . . . We were not very happy to find ourselves in a situation where we were getting criticism from native communities and we were sensitive to that criticism."
While Canada's Greenpeace chapter continues the campaign on behalf of seals, it has decided against being active participants in the other animal-rights battles, choosing instead to concentrate on environmental and peace and disarmament concerns.
The Toronto Humane Society, which has recently become dominated by animal-rights activists, is mobilizing now against the fur industry. "Basically, the position is, we're opposed to trapping and to fur farms," said Elizabeth White, the society's public relations coordinator. "The issue is not so much with the native people. It's more with the more broadly based industry."
White said her organization has attempted to reach some compromise with Indigenous Survival International, a lobby of northern natives in Canada, Greenland and Alaska that formed three years ago to counter the animal-rights groups and is based here in Yellowknife. But White said she did not know what form a compromise might take. "It is a dilemma, no doubt about it," she said. "But there has to be a voice for the animals."
The market for mink, fox and beaver fur coats is booming, especially with the growth of new markets in Asia -- indicating that the animal-rights activists have had little success so far, according to Kirk Smith, of the Toronto-based Canadian Fur Institute. Among its members are furriers and Eskimo hunters.
At the same time, researchers at Canadian universities are attempting to invent new traps to replace the leg-iron holds that have become a key symbol in the public relations efforts of animal-rights groups.
Smith said the fur industry does not take the crusade lightly, having learned a "terrible lesson" from the antisealing campaign. In the late 1970s, he said, Canada's sealing industry had revenues of about $10 million. Since 1983, when the European Community banned the import of fur from the baby white harp seal, the demand for all seal fur has plummeted to an estimated $1 million annually.
For many of the Eskimo communities in the Arctic, the collapse of the market for seal fur has been more devastating than the numbers suggest. Nancy Doubleday, international environmental coordinator for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, said about 20 of the 54 Eskimo communities in the Canadian Arctic had been heavily dependent on sealing.
Not only did they rely on the income from the sale of the pelts but they also ate the seal meat, which is regarded as highly nutritional for people without access to fruit and vegetables, and they fed it to their dog teams.
Earnings from the sale of the seal fur went to buy guns and boats for fishing and caribou hunting, Doubleday explained.