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IQALUIT, Nunavut (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper bit into a culinary controversy on Tuesday, dining on seal meat in symbolic defense of the country's embattled seal-hunting industry.
Harper, who with key members of his cabinet is touring Canada's Far North, dined on seal ribs and liver in Iqaluit, where hunting seals for survival and trade is a traditional part of the Inuit way of life.
Animals rights activists, especially in Europe, are trying to shut down Canada's sealing industry, and the European Union voted this year to impose a trade ban on seal products.
Canada has vowed to fight the trade sanctions, arguing that claims that seal hunters abuse the animals in the process of hunting them are false and that criticism of the industry is inflamed by emotion, not scientific facts.
"The standards in this industry, quite frankly, are better than many other industries that deal with animal products," Harper told reporters, to the applause of local residents watching the news conference.
Harper was in Iqaluit to start a week-long cross-country tour of the North that is aimed at asserting Canada's Arctic sovereignty claims.
The EU ban could apply to products ranging from fur to omega-3 pills, and local residents see it as another blow to a region that is already one of Canada's poorest.
Governor General Michaelle Jean, Canada's head of state, sparked a controversy in May when she dined on raw seal heart while visiting Nunavut and participated in a traditional seal skinning.
Jean responded that her main intention was to share in the culture of her hosts, the Inuit people, but that she was aware of the political overtones.
Her actions were condemned by animal rights groups, who say they are fighting only commercial hunting of seals, and not traditional hunting by the area's indigenous people.
Local residents do not see a difference.
The visitor's guide to Iqaluit, an isolated community of about 7,250 people that is the capital of the vast northern territory of Nunavut, credits the Arctic fur trade's role in replacing whale hunting after whale stocks collapsed in the region in 1905.
Harper's lunch was not observed by reporters, and his staff later reported he enjoyed the meal and encouraged the media traveling with him to try seal themselves.