OTTAWA - Seal meat is about to join beef tenderloin and baked salmon on the haute-cuisine menu for MPs and senators in the parliamentary restaurant.
MPs say Parliament is picking up the fork from Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, who triggered a global controversy last May by gobbling seal meat in a show of support for Inuit culture in the Arctic.
The parliamentary restaurant is one of the private gems on Parliament Hill. Its alabaster columns vault toward a ceiling spiked with several domes. A spectacular view of the Ottawa River is available to ministers, MPs, journalists and others who work on the Hill. Members of the public can only enter the restaurant as guests of those holding a parliamentary pass.
Jean chose a more down-to-earth venue when she sliced and ate a raw seal heart from a carcass that had been laid out on the floor of a Rankin Inlet community festival on Hudson Bay.
Liberal, Conservative and New Democrat MPs say the addition of seal meat to the menu in the exclusive parliamentary restaurant will also be a significant boost for sealers battling a European Union ban on their products.
"The sealers will be able to say this is legal in Canada, we follow the legal process, Parliament Hill serves seal meat and members of Parliament and senators eat seal meat," said Liberal MP Marcel Proulx, a member of the powerful all-party board that oversees Commons budgets and bylaws.
The head of a lobby group in Newfoundland and Labrador welcomed the move with enthusiasm.
"I think it's a wonderful gesture," said Frank Pinhorn, executive director of the Canadian Sealers' Association.
"I commend the federal government or whoever is involved in it. I think it's a real demonstration of support for Canadian culture and I think it's long overdue."
Two East Coast MPs, Conservative Gerald Keddy and New Democrat Yvon Godin, also embraced the measure as a positive step, each saying they have eaten seal meat and believe it should be promoted by Parliament.
"Awesome," Keddy said when he learned of the development Tuesday.
"I think it's a great show of support for Canadian sealers and the seal industry," he said.
"Plus, as an East Coaster, I've eaten seal a number of times. My preference is ringed seal out of the High Arctic. That is the tastiest of them all. Next to that, the grey seal is fine, not a thing wrong with that."
Proulx said Bloc Quebecois MP Michel Guimond suggested adding seals to the menu, but the board had to handle the matter delicately since it cannot dictate chef Judson Simpson's menu on behalf of all MPs and senators.
"We made sure that he got the message through the sergeant-at-arms (former RCMP superintendent Kevin Vickers) that he (chef Simpson) could choose what he wanted and we had no objection to him choosing seal meat for the menu," said Proulx. He noted other exotic meat, such as bison, is already on the menu.
Seal meat is regularly on the table for many residents of Newfoundland and Labrador, said Pinhorn.
"We hunt it and we have seal meat in our diet," he said. Seal meat processors must be licensed and inspected by government.
"If you're familiar with farm animals and fish in the ocean, it's almost in between. It's a meat but it's got sort of an overtaste from the marine environment, either the herring or the mackerel," he said.
Jean's gesture was strongly criticized in Europe, but sparked a boost in sales of seal snacks in restaurants serving the delicacy in cities such as Montreal.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has campaigned against the hunt for seal pelts, did not appear open to the idea of Parliament's support for seal as a food.
"That's going to be full of toxins," said a staff member at the society's headquarters in Washington State.