RESOLUTE BAY, Nunavut - Michaelle Jean launched a passionate defence of Canada's seal hunt against international critics who have decried her participation in an Inuit seal-skinning ritual.

The Governor General said in an interview with The Canadian Press that her main intention at a community festival in Rankin Inlet was to share in the culture of her hosts. But she was aware of the political overtones.

When presented with a seal carcass, Jean helped cut through the flesh, swallowed a piece of its heart and wiped her blood-spattered fingers clean with tissue.

"I think a person in my position knows exactly what's in the air and I'm aware of the context," Jean said in an interview.

"But this activity is part of the way of life of thousands of people in our country. In the North, in the Arctic, in the East, also in coastal regions," Jean said.

"It is part of their way of life. It is part of their economy. It is well-administrated. It is vital for them. It is done in a sustainable way. A very respectful way.

"And I'm certainly not indifferent to that. I respect that."

The Governor General got a close personal glimpse of her snack in its natural habitat. She spotted a number of seals during a snowmobile tour over the icy Northwest Passage on Wednesday.

She had been warned by the Arctic Rangers escorting her that if they spotted a seal, they might do what they usually do: hunt it. Jean's office told them to hunt like they normally would.

Some members of the travelling party referred to it as a "hunt," while others called it an "excursion."

In the end, none of her travelling companions drew a rifle during the outing and no seals were hunted.

Jean explained later that her intention had never been to hunt seals - and that she only wanted to visit the Northwest Passage.

When she was there, she gazed out over the melting, mythic waterway, rode on a motorbike into the tundra, spotted a few seals diving into ice-holes in the distance and walked closer to inspect their habitat.

She wore sealskin gloves for the affair.

Monday's scene, which raised eyebrows and turned stomachs around the world, galvanized critics and supporters alike and thrust Canada's commercial seal hunt back into the spotlight.

Animal rights critics have assailed Jean, saying traditional Inuit practices are not the same thing as those employed by commercial hunters.

They consider her actions "offensive," "bizarre" and "desperate."

Supporters, however - including Prime Minister Stephen Harper - have saluted Jean's gesture.

Rank-and-file sealers hailed her as a hero, while federal cabinet minister Peter MacKay described Jean as "Canada's new Braveheart."

Jean said people are probably too conditioned by modern life and forget where food comes from.

"When I eat beef, I am totally aware that eating beef is also. . .a once-living thing. Vegetarians make a choice in their life," she said.

"I haven't made this choice. When I eat lamb, I know that I am eating a lamb. When I eat veal, I know that I am eating a veal. Those, too, are very cute animals."

She points out that seal is an excellent source of vitamins and nutrients and has sustained the Inuit for centuries, in a harsh climate where there remain very few options for a healthy meal.

The local grocery store in Resolute offers some meat that might be considered more palatable to southern tastes - like the frozen chicken that costs $21 because it has to be flown in.

Jean described Monday as more of a bonding experience.

"It would have been an insult and it's not in my nature to stay at a distance and not participate," she said.

"What I like about my position is that I have this incredible privilege of sharing special moments with people, experiencing unique moments with people across the country."

The Governor General has heard deeply personal tales on her Arctic trip - ranging from parents who lost children to suicide, to elders who remember being forcibly moved by the government to distant villages as part of a plan to bolster Canada's sovereignty claims in the 1950s.

On Monday evening, she was being told about the cultural importance of the seal hunt and the traditional use of the ulu blade. She was informed that the heart is the most coveted part of the meal.

That's when she asked for a slice of it.

"The heart is a delicacy," Jean said.

"It is the best you can offer to your guest. It is the best that is offered to the elders.

"So, do you say no to that? You engage and at the same time you are learning about a way of life, a civilization, a tradition."

Her tour of the Arctic may have raised questions around the world but she is being treated with great respect in the North.

The principal of the local high school in this small Arctic community said Jean has done much to educate the south on the realities of life in the Far North.

"That has been a great legacy that you will leave," Brian Manning of the Qarmatalik school said in a small ceremony.

"I am very grateful. You've done much to educate the south about how things are up here."

"You've been true educator."

Manning said the disapprobation of some in the south for traditional Inuit diets was like going into someone's house and changing the channel on their television set.

The local co-op store in this remote community has few southern grocery options and most are expensive, making seal meat a vital choice for native families.

One frozen chicken costs $21. Two litres of milk go for $8.90. The fresh produce section has one green pepper, three heads of green lettuce and one bag of wilting romaine.

Salt-and-vinegar chips, on the other hand, are 99 cents a bag. The soda pop is cheap, too.

The lack of healthy food options on the tundra explains the sky-high diabetes rates in this region.

Many locals were dismayed to see their eating practices draw derisive headlines around the world.

This after they had been hoping Jean's visit would draw attention to the desperate needs of their region, like better education and infrastructure.

The mayor of Rankin Inlet was describing to visitors his hope for a new road to northern Manitoba, which would drastically reduce the price of food.

Local educators cheered on Jean's call for a university in the North, which she said would inspire more Inuit youth aspire to careers and help reverse the staggering high-school dropout rate of 75 per cent.

Instead, they got made fun of. Animal-rights activists compared the seal practice to spousal abuse in the Middle East, and to barbarism, and news reports described their habits as gross.

The Inuit generally use all parts of the animal to make things like clothes and oil, while there is some waste in the East Coast hunt despite the popularity of seal flipper in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted to ban seal products, a move that was seen by aboriginals and Atlantic Canadian fishermen as an attack on their trade and way of life.

For years, animal rights groups have intensely lobbied European politicians to implement such legislation, enlisting the support of celebrities, including rock legend Paul McCartney for their cause.

The bill still needs the backing of EU governments, though they are expected to sign it into law June 25.

Expected to take effect in October, the ban would apply to all products derived from seals, including fur, meat, oil, blubber and even omega-3 pills made from seal oil.

But it would offer narrow exemptions for Inuit communities, though it bars them from a large-scale trading of their pelts and other seal goods in Europe.

The federal government says the Inuit seal hunt is worth about $1 million a year.

Despite the EU's exemption for the Inuit, a native leader has said the ban would wipe out the seal-pelt market for everyone.

"The stated exemption in the legislation will not help us as the markets will once again be effectively destroyed," national Inuit leader Mary Simon said earlier this month.

"As Inuit leaders have stated across the Arctic, once you destroy a market for one group, it is destroyed for all."

Products derived from non-commercial and small-scale hunts to manage seal populations would also not be allowed to enter the EU.

- With files from Tara Brautigam in St. John's, N.L.

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