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Governor-General Michaelle Jean, centre, helps an Inuit elder skin two seals during a community feast in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, on Monday.

Sean Kilpatrick

Urbanites and animal-rights activists who were roiled by the gusto with which Governor-General Michaëlle Jean gobbled back raw seal meat this week can hold their criticism around John Hickes.

Mr. Hickes, the mayor of Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, where Ms. Jean indulged in the traditional feast, said the Governor-General brought a message of hope to the young people of his community.

And if, in the words of a citified Canadian Press reporter, she ended up wiping "the blood of a freshly slaughtered seal off her crimson-spattered fingertips" and asking enthusiastically to "try the heart," that's nothing Mr. Hickes wants to discuss.

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"She came to visit our community as the Governor-General and her eating habits are her own," he said firmly in a telephone interview Tuesday. "If you are looking for sensationalism, look somewhere else."

As Ms. Jean, the sophisticated former journalist, prepares to begin what is expected to be her final year at Rideau Hall, she is not afraid to wade into controversial waters when it comes to defending aboriginal traditions. After using a traditional ulu blade to gut the furry animal at a community festival on Monday, she decried those who, like Sir Paul McCartney, have labelled the seal hunt inhumane.

"Take from that what you will," she said when asked if her actions were intended to send a message to Europe, where opposition to the seal hunt runs high and a ban on seal products is poised to go into effect.

The Governor-General was apparently inspired by a visit earlier Monday to the Ulujuk High School in Rankin Inlet, where she met with young students and asked: "What do you want people in the south to know about you?"

One student responded: "The seal is our life, the seal is our way of life."

Mr. Hickes was impressed with the entire viceregal visit. "I think she's very professional and I think she's very down to earth and I think our people received her that way," he said.

Which is not to say that the seal-eating episode was universally well received.

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Rebecca Aldworth, the director of Canadian wildlife issues for the Humane Society of the United States, said Ms. Jean's performance in Rankin Inlet "was yet another cynical attempt by the Canadian government to blur the lies between Inuit subsistence hunts and the industrial scale slaughter of seals for their fur which is conducted almost entirely by non-aboriginal people in Canada."

Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical treatment of Animals (PETA) said: "The Canadian Governor-General's sick PR stunt is a predictable, if revolting, attempt to save a dying industry."

And Gawker, a U.S. gossip blog, compared her to Alaska Governor Sarah Palin by declaring: "Canada is easily winning the 'Who has the kookiest female Governor' sweepstakes."

But don't say that to Mary Simon, the national Inuit leader. "To us, this kind gesture is an acknowledgment by the Governor-General of our culture and our dependence upon our wildlife as an important resource for our communities today," Ms. Simon said in a release. "The reaction to this gesture of support has been phenomenal."

Todd Russell, the Liberal MP from Labrador, who is an ardent defender of the seal hunt, said Ms. Jean's actions were both marvellous and appropriate.

"I think she showed a lot of class and she showed a lot of empathy," said Mr. Russell, "and she validates one thing - that seal, and the eating of seal meat, and the hunting of seals, is an integral part of certain aboriginal peoples' culture."

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With a report from The Canadian Press

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