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June 1995
Mutiny in the Magdalen Islands

Part One by Alix Fano

 


For over two decades, Captain Paul Watson, Canadian-born Director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (based in Marina del Rey California), and a brave sea-faring crew of eco-warriors/activists, sailors, engineers, photographers and others, have valiantly put their bodies on the line by interfering with seal hunts. This March, Watson was almost killed by a mob of irate sealers in the Magdalen Islands, Canada. In the first part of her two-part story, journalist and activist Alix Fano recounts the horrific details of an incident that reveals the forces animal activists and environmentalists are up against.

In order to save hundreds of thousands of seals, and other marine mammals, from unnecessary violent deaths, Paul Watson has been arrested, detained, assaulted, and tear-gassed; he has spent time in prison, paid thousands of dollars in fines, and had his ship The Sea Shepherd II confiscated in 1983 by Canadian authorities for preventing the Canadian sealing fleet from departing for the ice. He has pursued pirate whaling ships and illegal driftnetters often for days at sea; and he has been pursued by authorities and enemy boats. He has been on trial dozens of times for violating international marine laws he was trying to uphold; despite accusations of wrongdoing, he has fought and won countless legal cases including a 10 year battle which deemed the Canadian Seal Protection Act to be unconstitutional.

Today, with Hollywood interested in making a movie about his life and work, Paul Watson, also an author of several books including Sea Shepherd: My Fight for Whales and Seals (1982, Norton), and Ocean Warrior (1994, Key Porter Books), is using economic incentives and public relations savvy to try and stop the killing of seals. He recently almost paid with his life for trying.

On March 16, 1995, Watson recounted that he, Lisa Distefano, and Chuck Swift, of Sea Shepherd, were in the Magdalen Islands in Canada with actor Martin Sheen — an avid environmentalist and Sea Shepherd supporter. Noted naturalist author Farley Mowatt was slated to join them. Once again it was time for the Canadian seal hunts to begin.

According to Watson, that day, he, Sheen, and the others were waiting for Tobias Kirchoff, a German quilt manufacturer from Munster who was interested in doing business with Watson and unemployed Canadian fishers. With a government permit in hand, Watson aimed to turn a violent, bloody two-century-old seal slaughter (in which seals are shot or beaten to death with wooden clubs) into a non-lethal, cruelty-free venture which would save the lives of seals and benefit the Canadian economy by creating news jobs and markets. He would hire twelve sealers, compared to the previous year’s two, to test the waters.

As reported in the Sea Shepherd Log, (4th Quarter, 1994), instead of clubbing seals to death, sealers would brush the fur of molting 3-week old seal pups. The fur, which comes off by the bag load, would be used as an insulating material in the manufacture of bed comforters, sleeping bags and pillows. But trouble began when Bob Hunter, a reporter with CITY-TV Toronto, informed Watson that the sealers association was holding a meeting in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, less than a mile away from the Madeli Inn where Watson, his crew, and several reporters were guests. They wanted none of Watson’s plan. At the meeting, Hunter heard a sealer yell out that, “seals were meant for clubbing, not coddling.” Abruptly, journalists and film crews, who had previously been invited to the meeting to get the sealers’ perspective, were thrown out of the hall. According to a statement released to Sea Shepherd by Andreas Lauk of RTL-TV Hamburg on March 29, 1995, Lauk’s attempts to reason with the sealers were met with curses. It had been decided, Lauk said, that Paul Watson and his crew were to be kicked off the Magdalen Islands.

An article by Merritt Clifton in the April 1995 edition of Animal People (Shushan, New York) reported that the local radio station CFIM had been broadcasting negative remarks about Watson throughout the day, inciting sealers to go to his hotel and tell him off. Tobias Kirchoff who had by then received a fax from Sea Shepherd’s California office that a conflict was brewing, decided to postpone his trip to the Islands.

On the afternoon of March 16th, Lisa Distefano called the chief of police, Pierre Dufort, of the Quebec Provincial Police and asked for maximum protection for the Sea Shepherd crew. Police trickled into the hotel throughout the afternoon, but seemed unable or unwilling to control the mob of sealers that by 2:30pm was beginning to fill the Madeli Inn. Distefano kept the California office aware of what was happening by telephone and asked them to keep media informed.

Although two plain-clothed officers remained in Watson’s room throughout the afternoon, Distefano maintains that the police, aside from being outnumbered by the sealers, were powerless against them. In his statement Lauk claimed that in fact, many policemen were the brothers and cousins of sealers and said they would not betray their family ties; consequently they refused to guarantee protection for the reporters or any of their equipment. According to Distefano, Chief of Police Dufort told her, as he had told reporters, that in the event of a life-threatening situation he would not guarantee the safety of the Sea Shepherd crew, nor use his gun to protect them.

Distefano and Lauk both confirmed that several of the police had allowed sealers up the stairs of the Madeli Inn to look for Watson. By 4pm the sealers were already patrolling the halls looking for him. Police told Watson that the sealers wanted him to leave the island; they advised him to go. Incredulous, Watson refused, citing his constitutional rights to be wherever he chose; moreover, he had a legitimate permit from the Canadian government to conduct business in the area.

Watson recounted that around 6pm, he and photojournalist Mark Gaede, who has accompanied Paul Watson on Sea Shepherd missions since 1989, sat talking in Gaede’s room, number 201. Watson had moved from his own room, number 206, in order to confuse the sealers. The noise and commotion downstairs and outside had grown louder throughout the afternoon, indicating that trouble was afoot. In fact, according to Watson, three hundred sealers, many intoxicated, had stormed the Madeli Inn and occupied the lobby, barring anyone from entering or leaving.

Distefano said that Sheen, who was in an adjacent room and had been interviewed by Lauk for RTL-TV early on that evening, had asked his agent to call The White House about the situation; he called the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa and the federal police in Quebec. He also tried to call the local priest in an effort to arrange a peaceful meeting with the sealers on “neutral” territory, but to no avail.

To avoid being spotted by flood lights the sealers were flashing against second-floor windows to find Watson, Distefano and Chuck Swift, now both
in room 207, had turned out their lights. As Distefano peered out the window, she said she saw the sealers’ snowmobiles and trucks, their engines revving and headlights on, filled with seal-killing equipment. From what she could see, the crowd outside had grown to 300. Bob Hunter of CITY-TV who was also hiding in a room with the lights off, said he saw something bone-chilling: one of the sealers was dragging a black Vietnam-style body bag, presumably intended for Watson, out to the pickup trucks. Gaede and Watson were looking for ways to escape from the room but could find none. Annemieke Roell, a representative from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has campaigned against the seal hunts for over a decade, was also barricaded in her room. Tensions and fears ran high.

At about 7pm a riot broke out. Andreas Lauk said that sealers were “yelling and hammering” at the doors, counting down from 10, hurling their bodies against the doors, causing the walls and floors to shake, and shouting “Watson come out!” Gaede said this went on for about one and a half hours until the sealers eventually realized that Watson was in room 201. He recounted that while the two policemen in the room, who were allegedly there to protect Watson, directed him to move to the sofa, they gave Watson no instructions. In fear for his life, Watson barricaded himself in his bedroom. He moved a bed in front of the door and used his body to secure it.

Moments later, at 7:15pm, Watson said that the first door of Room 201 was broken down by what could have been a pickax. Gaede recalled that 50 angry sealers poured into the room. They pushed the two policemen aside and, assuming he was Watson, attacked him by lifting up his shirt and slamming him against the wall. One sealer who was wearing black gloves, grabbed Gaede’s head and pushed his fingers into Gaede’s eyes as if to gouge them out. Just as Gaede thought he would surely lose his eyes, he said that a young sealer scolded the gloved assailant in French and rescued him just in time.

Meanwhile, an ocean of 30 or 40 sealers had broken Watson’s bedroom door down and found him. Gaede recalled hearing the sealers shriek savagely, like hunters who had found their trophy. Then, amidst the curses and cries, a worse sound was heard: that of Paul Watson being thrown against the wall and beaten for what Gaede believes was at least 10-15 minutes.

Distefano said that the sealers were careful not to hit Watson in the face in fear that the media could easily document visible injuries; consequently Watson was punched in his stomach, kidneys, and spine. During the attack, Watson said that one sealer, a captain Langford, whom he had encountered previously in a 1983 confrontation, punched him in the head. In self-defense, Watson said he grabbed his high-voltage stun gun and knocked Langford and two other men to the floor. Over the bodies of these three men, the brawl continued. As promised, throughout the incident, police did nothing: they used no tear gas, no riot control gear, and they did not fire their guns.

Gaede, not knowing whether Watson was alive or dead at that point, recalled that surprisingly, another sealer interfered on Watson’s behalf, shielding him with his body, fearing that perhaps Watson would be killed. Suddenly, Watson recounted, two uniformed police broke through the crowd. Officer Jacques Bouchard announced, “Watson, you leave in one minute or you’re a dead man.” Badly injured, and against his will, Watson said he was dragged down two flights of stairs, through a crowd of kicking, punching, and spitting sealers. From the window of his room, Bob Hunter said he saw a sealer haul the black body bag into the hotel lobby.

Gaede recalled that Watson could not hold his head up nor stand on his legs. His white shirt was stained with blood. According to Andreas Lauk, London Daily Mirror photographer Steve Douglas was struck and his film and camera destroyed when he tried to photograph Watson’s departure. Watson was thrown into a police car. In a matter of seconds, the car window on his side exploded — smashed by a sealing club, said Gaede. Glass shards went flying into Watson’s head and face, slashing his right temple. As this was happening, the police told Gaede that once the sealers returned from the airport, they would come to “get” the remaining reporters and destroy their film and equipment. Without delay, Gaede said he, Bob Hunter, and a couple of German film crews, made their way to the local hospital. There, a nurse led them to a hospital waiting room with blinded windows. Hunter reported that every so often, reporters snuck into the hallway to call for help from a payphone.

With a mob of sealers following it, the police car containing Watson headed for the airport. Upon arrival, Watson said that the other windows of the police car were smashed by the angry crowd, whereupon he was brought to a waiting room/holding area inside the small airport. There, he was detained behind a glass partition for one and a half hours, forced to sit helplessly and face his angry assailants. At the behest of the sealers, officer Jacques Bouchard told Watson to wipe the blood off his face and smile for the sealers’ cameras. Disgusted, injured, legally violated, and covered in blood, Watson refused to smile. But countless pictures of him were taken.

Finally, without the money or personal possessions he came with, Watson said that he was put on a charter plane destined for New Brunswick, 250 miles West of the Magdalen Islands. In the meantime, Distefano recounted that, at approximately 9pm the mob returned to the Madeli Inn. According to Lauk, the few remaining policemen had fled the scene in fear. Staff members of CITY-TV in Toronto, Lauk and others from RTL-TV in Germany were attacked, beaten, had their lives threatened, and videos stolen and destroyed. Lauk and his crew called the police in the hope of being able to seek refuge at the station, but the request was denied. According to a statement issued by Georg Wedermeyer on April 3, 1995, Wedermeyer and Joerg Wischmann of Stern magazine were able to escape the mob by climbing out of the second story window of their hotel room. The two Germans made it safely to a luxury hotel which was filled with Japanese tourists. (Tourists often come to the Magdalen Islands for helicopter tours which take them out to photograph seals on the ice). The Stern duo rounded up Gaede, Hunter and other journalists who had been hiding in the hospital across the street. With a rental car, they drove the others to the luxury hotel, and all registered under assumed names.
Meanwhile on the night of March 16th, down in the lobby of the Madeli Inn, Distefano spotted Gilles Theriault, head of the sealers’ union; the same man who had threatened her life and described to her his lust for killing seal pups. Theriault was behind the hotel desk, having donuts and coffee with the hotel manager and police officers Dufort and Bouchard — the very men who had been assigned to protect Watson. Outraged, Distefano, who at that point knew nothing of Watson’s health status or whereabouts, said she insisted that the police arrest Theriault; but they brushed off her request and refused. In addition, officer Donald Bouchard later informed Distefano that, before being allowed to leave the island, the Sea Shepherd party would have to submit to bag and body searches — by the sealers themselves.

Finally, Distefano said that at around 1 or 2am in the morning of the 17th, a tactical unit, consisting of 12 armed policemen from Montreal, arrived in a charter plane to rescue her, Swift, Sheen and the journalists. All, including the journalists who had had their luggage pilfered by local police, were accompanied under armed guard to the local airport and placed safely on an airplane to Quebec.

Howie Muir, Vice Consul of the United States Consulate in Quebec, had been in constant contact with both the Montreal police and the local Island police, in an effort to ensure the safety and rescue of the Sea Shepherd crew. Muir believes that a representative of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police from Quebec, who was communicating to the mainland from the island with a radio, helped to arrange from the unit’s arrival, as did local Island police. Distefano, Swift, and Sheen were eventually reunited with Watson on the mainland.

In Quebec, Watson filed charges of assault, breaking and entering, destruction of property, theft, and kidnapping. But he said the police refused to accept his complaint, claiming he had gotten what he deserved for trying to ruin peoples’ livelihoods. Moreover, members of the Quebec Provincial Police, including officers Donald Bouchard and Pierre Dufort of the Magdalen Islands, falsely informed the Canadian press that nothing had happened. The Toronto Globe and Mail, the leading Toronto paper, dutifully ignored the story as did the other local papers and television stations.
Watson stated that the Canadian press later changed its story, claiming that he choreographed the entire affair as a publicity stunt. This despite the fact that the chief editor of Stern magazine also filed a formal written complaint with the Canadian ambassador in Germany, Mr. Paul Heinbecker, accusing the Canadians of violating democracy and freedom of the press.

Watson, however, seems to have both luck and truth on his side. Members of RTL-TV Hamburg managed to salvage several videos by hiding
them in the snow. The footage, which was disseminated to European and Canadian media and aired on television around the world, clearly documented London photographer Steve Douglas’ beating.

Next month: Alix Fano writes on the Canadian sealing industry. (Based on interviews with Paul Watson, 4/10/95, Lisa Distefano 4/12/95, Bob Hunter of CITY-TV Toronto, 4/13/95, photojournalist Mark Gaede, 4/14/95, Howie Muir, Vice Consul of the U.S. Consulate in Montreal 4/18/95, Dr. David Lavigne, University of Guelph, seal expert, 4/18/95, and Tina Fagan, Executive Director, Canadian Sealers Association, 4/19/95).

Alix Fano is a journalist and activist based in New York City.

 


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