In a graphic gesture of solidarity with seal hunters, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean swallowed a dripping chunk of seal heart as hundreds of Inuit looked on.

The tasting took place Monday at a community feast in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Jean, on a week-long trip to the Arctic, knelt above a pair of seal carcasses and carved out the meat using a traditional ulu blade.

After slashing through the flesh, the Governor General turned to the woman beside her and asked: "Could I try the heart?"

Shortly thereafter, Jean was given a bloody piece of seal heart and ate it whole. She then grabbed a tissue to wipe her blood-soaked fingers.

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

Jean said it was "absolutely delicious."

The gesture was met with dismay Tuesday by Humane Society International, which opposes the hunting of seals and supports a European Union ban on Canadian seal meat -- although Inuit are partly exempt from the ban.

"She may have innocently entered this politically-charged debate, but I find it hard to believe that in her position she would be unaware of the political controversy surrounding this," Rebecca Aldworth, director of HSI's Canadian branch, told CTV News Channel.

Earlier Monday, Jean had told a group of students at an assembly that she hoped there would be seal meat at the feast.

"We generally don't have seal meat at the community feast because it has to be fresh it's not always possible to guarantee fresh seal meat," Paul Waye, the town manager in Rankin Inlet, told CTV Newsnet on Tuesday.

"At that assembly, someone had heard her and they actually went out hunting that afternoon and caught a couple of seals and brought them to the feast that night."

Waye said it was a "very amazing experience" to have Jean as a guest.

"She was a delight to have in the community and her participation in the community feast was very well respected by the whole community," he said.

Waye said Jean had more than one piece of seal meat.

"She had seal blood up to her wrist so she was involved," he said.

Jean's participation went a long way build relations between locals and the government.

"To see someone, the head of state, come to Nunavut and participate in traditional activities it really strengthens ties and makes us feel a part of Canada again," Waye said.

Seal ban

Last month, the European Union voted to ban seal products. Inuit communities from Canada and Greenland are exempted in the bill but they still cannot engage in large-scale trading of seal products in Europe.

In Nunavut, locals say the ban will only add to the already troubled economic situation.

Jean said the hunt is practiced responsibly.

"These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life," she said.

"If you can't understand that, you're completely missing the reality of life here."

Paul Kaludjak, head of the agency implementing Nunavut's land claims agreement, said the value of seals makes up 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," Kaludjak said. "We'll find out in a matter of years."

Meanwhile, Jean is using her trip to push for a university in the North to help Inuit be a part of the economic growth in the region.

"I am totally convinced that this kind of infrastructure would be something worth considering," Jean told several town councillors.

"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.

With files from The Canadian Press