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 ritual.

In fact, the Governor General's response could hardly be more defiant: Jean was invited by a group of Inuit to join them on a seal hunt Wednesday evening.

And she accepted.

She said in an interview with The Canadian Press she was aware how her gesture Monday at a community festival in Rankin Inlet would be interpreted.

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

However, she says, the intention wasn't to make a political statement.

"I think a person in my position knows exactly what's in the air and I'm aware of the context. I'm aware that now if you eat seal or wear something made of sealskin. . .it says that you recognize this activity."

"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."

"People have to accept the diversity of realities."

The gory gesture, 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 the government of 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."

"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.

"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 children's suicides to elders who remember being forcibly moved into distant villages by the government in the 1950s.

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

"The heart is a delicacy," she 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."

Jean accepted a certificate before some assembled elders, saying "all I did is show respect."

"To me it's something very natural - and that should be always."

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 is for sale, at $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.

On Wednesday, a Resolute Bay elder noted there is very little game in the area, making seal meat one of the only options for fresh food.

George Eckalook acknowledged some in the south may find the seal hunt offensive.

"We understand their concerns but we won't change," he said.

"They should understand."

The Inuit generally use all parts of the animal, 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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