ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean's gutting of a seal before eating a piece of its raw heart has inflamed an emotional debate, with animal welfare groups accusing her of using the Inuit subsistence hunt to legitimize Canada's commercial seal trade, while sealers welcomed her unexpected show of support.
"I found it very offensive," Rebecca Aldworth, a Canadian spokeswoman for Humane Society International, said Tuesday.
"Obviously there is a tremendous public understanding of subsistence hunting in Inuit communities and nobody's opposing that, but to try to benefit from an Inuit ceremony in terms of defending the broader commercial seal hunt is simply unacceptable."
Jean cut through seal flesh, swallowed a piece of its heart and wiped her blood-spattered fingers clean with tissue while attending a community festival Monday in Ranklin Inlet, Nunavut.
The rare and graphic sight was too much to stomach for European opponents of Canada's commercial seal hunt.
"The fact that the Governor General in public is slashing and eating a seal, I don't think that really helps the cause and I'm convinced that this will not change the mind of European citizens and politicians," said Barbara Slee, an animal rights campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Brussels.
"It's just a sad and quite a desperate attempt by the Canadian government to blur again the distinction between the different seal hunts."
A spokeswoman for European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, who proposed legislation to ban the import of seal products, offered a terse reaction to Jean's actions.
"It's too bizarre to acknowledge," Barbara Helfferich said.
But sealers in Newfoundland hailed Jean for supporting their ailing industry.
"That's great stuff," said Jack Troake, who has flown his Canadian flag upside down and at half-mast daily since the EU approved a ban on seal products.
"I hope the lady realizes that she's got herself into a hell of a mess ... you've got some of these environmentalists that are going to jump on her, but I think she's strong enough. She can take that I think."
Mark Small said Jean's simple gesture was symbolically significant, especially given her ceremonial, politically neutral role.
"I know the Governor General's office is not supposed to be showing any political activity, but this is a very important issue for the Canadian people, especially when you see bans ... going in place," Small said.
Peter MacKay, Newfoundland and Labrador's federal cabinet representative, applauded Jean.
"I think she's Canada's new Braveheart for eating the seal heart," MacKay said in Ottawa.
"I'd love to try it."
While her actions triggered a torrent of reaction ranging from outrage to ovation on news websites and blogs around the world, Jean explained they were simply in accordance with an ancient way of life in northern Canada.
Asked Tuesday whether her actions were intended as a message to Europe, Jean replied, "Take from that what you will."
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon thanked Jean for supporting a way of life for many aboriginals in the North.
"She'll probably get hammered by the animal rights groups but it shows that it's OK, it's normal to have seal meat," Simon said from Kuujjuaq, Que.
"For her to go to an Inuit community and get involved, not just making speeches in support of our traditional hunt of the seal, but actually participating in the skinning and eating of the animal ... it was a very, very strong statement of support."
Meanwhile, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals stepped up its campaign against Canada's commercial seal hunt by calling on Americans to boycott Canadian-made maple syrup.
But Simon Trepanier, a spokesman for the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, said he doesn't understand what seals have to do with maple syrup.
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 on 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.
Products derived from non-commercial and small-scale hunts to manage seal populations would also not be allowed to enter the EU.