Canada's prime minister has dined on seal meat in a gesture of support to the country's controversial seal hunt industry.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's lunch with his cabinet on Tuesday included a traditional aboriginal Inuit serving of seal rib meat and liver. Harper's seal meal comes a few months after Canada's governor general ate a slaughtered seal's raw heart in a show of support to aboriginal seal hunters.
Governor General Michaelle Jean, the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II as Canada's head of state, generated controversy for swallowing a slice of seal after the European Union voted in May to impose a ban on seal products on grounds that the seal hunt is cruel.
"The standards of this industry, quite frankly, are better than many other industries that deal with animal products," Harper said. "There is no reason the seal industry should be singled out for discriminatory treatment by Europeans or any other nation, and I've been very outspoken on that."
The prime minister's staff said it was the first time Harper tried seal meat. The premier of Nunavut, a mostly Inuit province, called the meal an important political statement.
Animal rights groups believe Canada's annual seal hunt is cruel, poorly monitored and provides little economic benefit. Seal hunters and Canadian authorities say it is sustainable, humane and provides income for isolated communities.
EU nations gave their final approval in July to a ban on imports of seal products in an effort to force Canada to end its annual seal hunt. The new EU rule offers narrow exemptions so Inuit communities from Canada, Greenland and elsewhere can continue traditional hunts, but bars them from large-scale trading of their pelts and other seal goods in Europe.
Harper is in Canada's north as part of a trip to promote Arctic sovereignty, which has moved to the forefront among northern countries as global warming melts Arctic ice and opens new shipping routes and access to untapped, potentially rich resources.
Harper planned to be on a Navy ship on Wednesday to observe an ongoing military exercise.
"We are forcefully asserting and defending Canada's sovereignty and security in this region," Harper said.
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