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Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean sparked an international controversy by cutting out part of a seal's heart and swallowing it raw. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean is earning both applause and rancour for her decision to eat raw seal during a community feast this week in Nunavut.

On Monday at a ceremony in Rankin Inlet, Jean used a traditional Inuit knife to cut into the flesh of a seal and slice off a part of its heart. She then swallowed the morsel raw, as a show of solidarity with Canada's sealers, who have been under increased attack this year.

The incident sparked national headlines and protests from animal welfare groups, as well as praise from politicians like Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

"I think that was wonderful. I think she's Canada's new Braveheart for eating the seal heart," said MacKay, referring to the Mel Gibson film about Scottish hero William Wallace.

"We're going up there again in the summer, the chief of defence staff and I as we did last year [for a military operation], and I expect there'll be an opportunity to try some delicious seal. I would encourage all Canadians to try seal. It's a wonderful product."

Jean's actions have sparked a controversy in the United Kingdom, where critics say she crossed the line by wading into a political controversy.

"I find what she's done extraordinary to comprehend," Dickie Arbiter, the former press secretary to the Queen, told CBC News from London.

"Her role is largely ceremonial and what she does in the political arena is really on the advice of the prime minister and the ministers. And to start cutting up a seal and eating it is sort of making a political statement and not what one expects a Governor General to do."

But Jack Troake, a fisherman who has worked for decades in the seal hunt off Newfoundland's northeast coast, said Jean's action was a morale boost, especially when Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been reticent to publicly endorse the hunt.

"I think it's great," said Troake, who lives in Twillingate.

"It's a wonderful plus for us downtrodden sealers … At least, you know, she had the guts to take a stand for us because, for sure, she knew what she was getting herself into."