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Canadian Minister of Defence Peter MacKay eats a piece of seal meat during a community event in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/Reuters)
Canadian Minister of Defence Peter MacKay eats a piece of seal meat during a community event in Iqaluit, Nunavut. (ANDY CLARK/Andy Clark/Reuters)

Seal on the menu for parliamentarians Add to ...

The taste is apparently quite gamy - sort of like moose but not really like moose at all. And it's so dry it has to be wrapped in fat to make it chewable.

But when a Liberal senator asked a select group of fellow parliamentarians to join her for a seal meat luncheon Wednesday, colleagues who were not on the list began lobbying for invitations.

Around the world, the seal hunt has been vilified by those who say it is a cruel slaughter of defenceless animals. High-profile critics include Paul McCartney and Canada's own Pamela Anderson. The European Union has banned imports of all seal products.

Here in Ottawa, however, seal is chic, and denouncing the sealing industry is, well, impolitic.

"It's to demonstrate that we have quasi-unanimity on the Hill," Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette said yesterday after the menu for the seal fête at the parliamentary restaurant was distributed to reporters. "There is only one dissident."

That individual is Mac Harb, another Liberal senator. Mr. Harb plans to reintroduce a bill to end the commercial seal hunt in Canada. He also intends to be at the seal lunch, but will not sample the main course - a double-smoked, bacon-wrapped seal loin in a port reduction.

"I will just have a peek," Mr. Harb said. "I suspect that they will lock themselves into some sort of a room. I wouldn't expect them to be openly sitting and eating seals in front of everybody else."

The harp seals that are slaughtered commercially are not normally used for food, Mr. Harb added. Their skinned bodies are left on the ice, "and the vast majority of sealers don't even touch the meat," he said. "If you don't cook it in a certain way, it's not edible."

Perhaps. But Denis Painchaud of the Auberge chez Denis à François in the Magdalen Islands said his restaurant has been serving seal meat for 22 years and has found it to be quite versatile.

The Auberge marinates it in wine and then braises it. "But you can cook it many ways," Mr. Painchaud said.

The key, he added, is to remove all of the fat. "The fat tastes very, very bad, so we take it off. So that gives us a very dry meat."

There is nothing that tastes like seal except seal, but its flesh is dark and some people have compared it to moose, Mr. Painchaud said.

The restaurant began by serving seal as a main course. But it is difficult to obtain in large quantities, when it is available at all. And many customers just want a sample, so now it is offered as an appetizer. "I would say that 90 per cent of people say it is very, very good," Mr. Painchaud said.

Ms. Hervieux-Payette said she has dined on seal, both raw and cooked, on a number of occasions. It smells a little like fish but is not at all fishy in taste, she said.

This week's luncheon, the senator said, is meant to make a point of principle: "Parliamentarians of all parties are saying to sealers that [sealing is]a legitimate business, and we support you," she said.

Ms. Hervieux-Payette accuses the groups who oppose the seal hunt of using the issue as a means to raise funds.

"They are doing that in a very nasty way," she said. "When you don't have the right side of the argument, you use intimidation, and that's what they have used with the parliamentarians in Europe."

If that's the case, it's not a tactic that has proved effective with federal politicians in Canada.

"We had 30 seats," and they were eagerly sought after, Ms. Hervieux-Payette said of her luncheon. "I said, well, first come, first served."

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