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Michaëlle Jean promotes education, Arctic university

GG eats seal to show support for Inuit

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RANKIN INLET – First she gutted it. Then she had the bleeding heart pulled out of its furry, flabby carcass. Finally, she swallowed a slice of the mammal's oozing organ.

And when it was all over Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean wiped the blood of a freshly slaughtered seal off her crimson-spattered fingertips.

The Governor General made a graphic gesture of solidarity with the country's beleaguered seal hunters on the first day of a week-long Arctic visit at a community feast in Rankin Inlet May 25.

Hundreds of Inuit gathered around as Jean knelt above a pair of carcasses and used an ulu to slice the meat off the skin.

After repeated, vigorous slashes through the flesh, the Queen's representative turned to the woman beside her and asked enthusiastically: "Could I try the heart?"

Within seconds Jean was holding a dripping chunk of seal-flesh, which she tucked into her mouth, swallowed whole, and turned to her daughter to say it tasted good.

Jean grabbed a tissue to wipe her blood-soaked fingers, and explained her gesture. She expressed dismay that anyone would characterize Inuit' traditional hunting practices as inhumane.

Jean gestured to the hundreds of people in a packed arena and noted that they would all be fed by the meat laid out on a tarp on the floor.

"It was absolutely delicious," Jean said. "These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life."

The European Union voted earlier this month to impose a ban on seal products.

The European Union bill still needs the backing of EU governments, which could be a mere formality since national envoys have already endorsed the legislation.

Expected to take effect in October, the ban would apply to all products and processed goods derived from seals, including fur, meat, oil blubber and even omega-3 pills made from seal oil.

Jean said the hunt is practiced responsibly. She also lauded the nutritional quality of her snack.

"It's like sushi," she said. "And it's very rich in protein."

Rankin Inlet residents said they wish more outsiders would see things that way.

One Nunavut leader pegged the value of seals at 20 per cent of his area's economic activity.

"It's hard to say how much will be lost because of this – because it's early," said Paul Kaludjak, president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. "We'll find out in a matter of years."

Two young men had walked into the crowded room to drop the seal bodies on the floor while the Governor General was chatting with local leaders.

It was an unconventional end to a day that began with a far more conventional message: the value of an education.

Jean is making an unusually forceful pitch that the federal government should help build a university in the North so that more Inuit share in economic growth in the region.

It is an uncommon foray into policy advocacy, considering her ceremonial, politically neutral role.

Ottawa has said it's not looking to build a university in the Arctic soon. The Conservatives say they've increased funding for colleges in the area and donated to an international project to improve school programs in different Arctic countries.

But Jean says the region needs more. She points to the University of Tromso, which serves Norway's Sami aboriginal people, as an inspiration for Canada.

Tromso's medicine, law and geology faculties are the kind of programs, she says, that could inspire more Canadian Inuit to pursue an education. The high school graduation rate in Nunavut is the lowest in Canada, at a mere 25 per cent.

With so few university students in the North, Jean suggests opening up the school to students throughout Canada and breaking it up into smaller satellite campuses throughout the Arctic.

Several town councillors applauded the Governor General at a round-table meeting for speaking up in favour of the idea.

"I am totally convinced that this kind of infrastructure would be something worth considering," Jean told them. "It's very important for those young people to see that [a degree] is possible, that it is accessible, not too far away from where they are.

"I was able to see what an incredible tool for development that was (in Norway.)"

Earlier in the day Jean delivered a speech at a high-school gymnasium, where she asked students to speak about their aspirations.

"The reason I'm here is I really want people down south to know what life is like here," Jean said. "Development in the North cannot happen without you. It has to be about you".

Jean handed out achievement awards and invited a recipient – Adine Sandy – to describe her dreams.

However, the teenager remained tongue-tied while an auditorium full of classmates cheered her on. Eventually, she shyly whispered in the Governor General's ear that she wanted to study management and run a business.

Jean reached around to caress the baby swaddled on the teenager's back.

Jean's daughter, Marie-Eden, is taking a week off school to see the Arctic.

The delegation was greeted by snow flurries and sub-zero temperatures, and Marie-Eden wrapped a red scarf around her face to ward off the whistling wind.

The Governor General later introduced her daughter to three Rankin Inlet children who scaled a rocky hill to join the delegation as it visited a lookout point.

Jean is spending a week in the Arctic to celebrate Nunavut's 10th anniversary, and then visit Nunavik.

She expressed uncertainty when asked whether it would be her last trip to the Arctic as Governor General.

"It could be," Jean said in an interview. "I hope not. Of course, as time goes by I start thinking about that."

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