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Governor General seal-snacking inspires dreams for Inuit food industry

IQALUIT, Nunavut - You've seen it being eaten on your television screen. Now, people of the Arctic have visions of their food on your plate.

IQALUIT, Nunavut - You've seen it being eaten on your television screen. Now, people of the Arctic have visions of their food on your plate.

Inuit leaders want to capitalize on the promotional bonanza offered by images broadcast around the world of Canada's vice-regal munching on a raw slice of seal heart.

They have reason for optimism: One Montreal restaurateur says his seal orders have doubled thanks to the media frenzy, and now account for two-thirds of his total appetizer sales.

The premier of Nunavut hopes more southerners follow the lead of Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean and add to their diet what the locals call "country food" - not just seal, but Arctic char, caribou, and muskox.

In a region desperate for economic activity - the employment rate in Nunavut is just 58 per cent - there are dreams of southern palates, and wallets, opening to the spoils of their land.

There's one big obstacle in getting the food down south: there are no roads to these Arctic communities, and shipment by boat or plane is painfully expensive.

"We have all these wonderful, highly nutritious foods," Premier Eva Aariak said in an interview.

"It's straight from the land. No preservatives. If only we had the infrastructure."

The Governor General can attest to the tastiness of country food.

During their stay, Jean and her entourage were treated to succulent muskox ribs topped in a demi-glaze sauce, and canapes of Arctic char, which resembles salmon or trout in colour, texture and taste.

But none of those meals captured international headlines like the video of Jean slicing and sampling a seal.

Jean said the blubbery mammal had a texture like sushi - but with a meatier flavour. The premier agrees it tastes like meat, only with a subtle fishy flavour derived from the animal's steady diet of marine life.

Although fatty flipper pies are a favourite of Newfoundlanders, seal is a rare find on Canadian menus.

One restaurateur who offers seal in unusual appetizers can't believe his good fortune.

Customers have been gobbling up the $13-$15 seal tartare with capers; rare seal tataki; and seal smoked meat from the appetizer menu at Montreal's Au Cinquieme Peche.

Chef and co-owner Benoit Lenglet has been selling the dishes for two years and he's never seen anything like this.

"It's the most expensive item on our appetizer menu," Lenglet said.

"But there's been so much publicity on this that seal now represents two-thirds of our appetizer sales. . . They have doubled."

Such evidence of her culinary influence was greeted with a vice-regal chuckle.

"That's marvellous," said Jean.

And that's music to the ears of Nunavut's premier.

Aariak says she became envious during a trip to Greenland when, at a meat market, she spotted seal laid out for commercial consumption. Why not in Canada?

"It could be in the high-end Toronto restaurants," Aariak said.

"It would be fresh, fresh on those plates."

But building a viable industry would require new infrastructure in Nunavut - where there are no commercial ports for shipping and no highways connecting the tiny hamlets to one another.

To a visiting passenger, an Arctic community seen from an airplane can resemble a few specks of sand dropped in the middle of a frozen hockey rink.

Airfare even within the region can cost $3,000, and a plane ticket from Nunavut's capital to Canada's capital runs around $2,000.

That's one of the reasons so many Inuit rely on hunted food, rather than shelling out more than $20 at the grocery shop for frozen chicken shipped up from southern Canada.

There are long-term plans, however, to connect the territory to the national highway system.

Montreal engineering giant SNC Lavalin has already conducted a feasibility study for the governments of Nunavut and Manitoba that maps out a proposed 1,200-kilometre road to northern Manitoba.

The project cost is pegged at $1.2 billion - and connecting it to Manitoba's railway system would take an estimated 20 years, and another five years to link it to Manitoba's provincial Road 290.

The study suggests that construction of the road from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, to Churchill, Man., could at first link Inuit communities with one another before finally connecting with Manitoba.

The province and territory hope for funding help from the federal government, and from the mining companies seeking a cheaper way to ship the region's minerals like gold, diamonds, and iron ore.

"You have highways in the south. We don't," Aariak said.

"What is taken for granted in the south, we have to fight for in the north."

Even without a harbour, the locals use creative means to build a fishing industry. They use snowmobiles to meet the ships, they use barges, or they wait for high tide to bring the boats to shore.

An article in this week's Nunavut News announced that the turbot fishery in the town of Pangnirtung hauled in 108,410 kg. of fish - almost five times more than last year.

The $250,000 paid out to 31 local fishers might seem small by big-city standards. But to a community of 1,364 people, that's a more important employer than General Motors is in Ontario.

And, just maybe, better infrastructure might drive down the price someday of a seal surf and turf special on the table d'hote menu of a Quebec City restaurant.

The premier certainly hopes so.

"We know we can't do everything all at once," she said.

"But we have the energy, we have the willpower, we have the person power to do these kinds of things."

 
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