An international controversy is finally dying down over the way the Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean, showed respect for Inuit traditional ways during a visit to Nunavut a couple weeks ago.
On the first day of her trip to Canada’s Arctic, May 25, she visited the community of Rankin Inlet, on Hudson Bay, to promote a variety of improvements that could help the Inuit people. She spoke about the need for a university in the North, modeled perhaps after the University of Tromso in northern Norway that serves the Saami minority of that country.
The Governor General, who came to Canada as a refugee from Haiti when she was young, also listened to presentations about the need for a road from the Canadian South to the North. She visited a high school to deliver a speech about the importance of education. She herself has several advanced degrees and pursued a career as a journalist and broadcaster for the CBC before being named Governor General by the Queen in 2005.
Later in the day things got especially interesting. The Inuit held a festival for Ms. Jean, with freshly-killed seal carcasses ready for the feast. The Governor General took a traditional Inuit knife, an ulu, and used it to slice some meat off the carcass. Then she enthusiastically asked a woman standing next to her if she could try the heart. She quickly cut out a slice, popped it into her mouth, and swallowed it raw, in the Inuit fashion.
She was, of course, aware of the power of the image she was casting, and the fact that videos of her eating a piece of seal heart would quickly be uploaded to the Internet. She referred to the action of eating raw seal meat as an ancient cultural practice that is carried out in a humane, respectful fashion. “It’s like sushi, and very rich in protein,” she said, a calculated remark that of course connected the Inuit custom with the Japanese fish delicacy. She said the seal heart was delicious.
Her act caused an international outcry, especially from animal rights groups, which have been pressing European governments and the EU to ban the import of commercially harvested Canadian seal products. The EU ban, which will take effect later in 2009, exempts seal products that have been harvested by the Inuit, but there is still a lot of resentment in Canada, especially in the North, about the actions of Europeans and the statements by animal rights organizations.
Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said, “I’m extremely embarrassed to be associated with a governor general of my country eating raw seal meat in that manner. It’s barbaric. ”Rebecca Aldworth from the Humane Society International Canada made similar comments. “It was ill-advised and in poor taste,” she said. A representative of PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, expressed amazement that such a high official would “indulge in such blood lust.”
The Governor General had her defenders. A Liberal senator, Celine Hervieux-Payette, called Ms. Jean’s support for the Inuit custom “a generous gesture.” She said that cooked seal meat is a delicacy, and she is trying to add it to the menu of the restaurant in parliament.
Others praised, or raged, in the press and the blogosphere of Canada, the U.S., and around the world. Some defenders of Canada saw their country as being attacked by effete Europeans, who like to criticize the aboriginal practice of eating raw seal meat as barbaric, yet will consider themselves civilized when they eat foods such as foie gras, the enlarged livers of force-fed ducks.
One commentator said, “she’s Canada’s new Braveheart.” Others compared her to Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who is famed for shooting wolves from aircraft and draping the pelts in her office. The Governor and the Governor General wear similar glasses and had careers as journalists before becoming politicians, but Ms. Jean has a more forceful, provocative style than Ms. Palin, many feel. Ms. Jean, one blogger wrote, is “clearly the more badass of the two, [since she] prefers to butcher seals and eat their hearts in front of hundreds of onlookers.”
Opinions in Nunavut and the rest of Canada’s North generally favored the gesture by the G.G. Aaju Peter, a Nunavut local, said in an e-mail, “both she and the Inuit are showing great respect for the animal and great respect for each other in the sharing and accepting of this seal that has offered itself to the hunter.” Others, however, attacked the notion that an animal ever “offers itself” to a human.
The Governor General’s one simple gesture threatened to overwhelm the rest of her week-long tour of Nunavut. Much of her emphasis, in the various communities she visited, was on youth and education, which the Inuit appreciated. She told students she wanted to focus on them so the people in southern Canada would appreciate the realities of life, and the aspirations, of people in the North.
Later in the week, the G.G. rebutted her attackers and supported the Inuit way of hunting and living off the land. “It is part of their way of life. It is part of their economy. It is well [administered]. 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 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.”
The principal of a high school, summarizing feelings among the Inuit for her visit, told her, “I am very grateful. You’ve done much to educate the south about how things are up here. You’ve been [a] true educator.”
The simple, but highly theatrical, act of respect by the Governor General a couple weeks ago renewed southern Canadian appreciation for the customs of the Inuit and sparked a broader dialog about Canadian identity that still continues.