Governor General Michaëlle Jean’s participation in traditional Inuit activities, such as the consumption of a seal heart and then a subsequent excursion seal hunt, have given her “rock star” status among the Inuit. At the same time, many around the globe have reacted with outrage and disgust and no one group has been more vocal about its disdain for her activities than People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The whole incident happened on May 25 when Jean was kicking off a week-long visit to Nunavut for the territory’s 10th anniversary celebrations, Jean gutted and ate some fresh seal at a community festival.

While Jean has defended her own actions by disclaiming that she was participating in a ceremony as a guest of honour, PETA, along with many other animal-rights groups, has said that the incident was politically motivated.

“You read the accounts. If that were true, obviously it would be a tenable defense of what she did but her statements justified the commercial hunt. It wasn’t like someone offered her the heart and she was obliged to consume it. She was digging in and specifically asked, ‘Can I eat the animal’s heart.’ It’s a pretty gruesome way to behave by any sane measure,” said Bruce Friedrich, PETA Vice-President for Policy.

Friedrich said that Jean also ate the heart out of defiance of the European Union’s recent ban on seal products from Canada which came after years of pressure from animal-rights groups. The ban, however, excludes exemptions to Inuit from Canada and Greenland to continue their traditional seal hunts though the exemptions are subject to a number of restrictions.

While PETA has likened Jean’s sampling of seal heart to “taking part in the beating of women in the Middle East because it is part of local practice,” in various releases the group has been adamant that their stance is not an assault against Indigenous hunters.

Friedrich explained that PETA does not have a campaign of any kind against the Inuit and for that matter believe the cessation of the commercial seal hunt would benefit the Inuit.

“The Inuit hunt is under no danger and, in fact, if the commercial hunt went away that would be removing 97% of their competition so it would be a boon for the Inuit hunt and not jeopardize it in any way,” said Friedrich.

In protest of Canada’s government-endorsed commercial hunt, PETA has called for a ban first on Canadian maple-syrup products and just this week, a boycott of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

According to Friedrich however, PETA’s interests lie in discouraging the slaughter of animals for human consumption, animal experimentation and the production of animal products on a commercial level. While this is occurring on a global commercial scale, Friedrich insisted that this is the group’s focus and while it is their primary agenda they have no interest in going after Indigenous hunters and farmers.

“We are focusing on the obvious areas where people are sacrificing animals for inconsequential interests. That same calculation doesn’t apply for somebody who lives in an area where there is no growing season and consequently we have no campaign in those areas,” said Friedrich.

Jean has paid little heed to her critics and has fiercely stood by her actions in Nunavut, but since the controversy began she is not the only person under fire.

The Canadian Press reported on June 4 that in the wake of the seal-heart incident, Montreal chef Benoit Lenglet, who serves seal meat on his menu at restaurant Au 5ieme peche, has received death threats from as far as France and Belgium for doing so.