In his role as Chancellor, Alistair Darling has become used to eating local delicacies laid on by his hosts at international summits. But at the G7 finance ministers' meeting in northern Canada last night, he drew the line at tucking into a traditional Inuit supper of seal meat.
The nature-loving Chancellor was forced to make a decision between risking upsetting the local Inuit community, whose culture has seal- hunting at its heart, and outraging animal rights activists.
Mr Darling chose the former – and ate the more politically correct dish of Arctic char, which is a type of fish. Musk ox and caribou were also on the menu.
The Canadian government's summit in Iqaluit, the capital of the northern territory of Nunavut on Baffin Island, is treacherous ground for the visiting ministers. The waitresses at the dinner, at a local Inuit school, wore seal-skin hairpins. At earlier talks at the Nunavut parliament building, the delegates sat on chairs upholstered in sealskin. Each was offered a "goodie bag" of seal-skin vests and mittens.
Speaking before the supper, a spokeswoman for Mr Darling said: "He's not going to eat the seal. I'm sure he'd rather [the chairs] were upholstered in something else." Mr Darling was expected to shun the goodie bag. It is not the first time the menu at an international summit has caused problems for British sensibilities. Sarah Brown divided opinion last July when she sent back a dish of veal on two occasions at the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy.
But local politicians were unabashed at showing the G7 ministers – including four from the EU, where seal products are banned – that the Inuit culture thrives on sealing. Nunavut premier Eva Aariak told Toronto's Globe and Mail last week: "The issue and topic of sealing will be very evident. We hope that [the visit] will be the event of a lifetime for a lot of the delegates, knowing that they have never been this far north in their lives, and experiencing first-hand what Inuit are all about."
There is still local anger at the 2006 protest by Paul McCartney and his then wife Heather Mills against seal-hunting on Canada's east coast. Federal health minister Leona Aglukkaq, an Inuit MP for Nunavut, referring to animal rights protests, told the newspaper: "It's an opportunity to educate the international community. They're protesting because some rock star laid on the ice with a seal.... I'm frankly sick and tired of being a target of international organisations."
Inuit leader Mary Simon has previously complained that the anti-seal campaign, including the EU ban, is an insult to her culture, insisting: "It is doubtful that a wild seal living in the Arctic would envy the life prospects of a factory-raised chicken."
But a spokeswoman for animal rights group Peta said: "The campaign is against the commercial slaughter [of] thousands of baby seals bludgeoned or skinned alive each year. The government and the corporate fishers behind the eastern seal slaughter are using the Inuit people as a cover for their cruel and irresponsible behaviour.... Peta applauds Alistair Darling for his refusal to eat the seal meat the Canadian government is foisting on its visitors."
The ministers are to debate reforms to banking, including President Barack Obama's proposals to tax banks. The summit's host, Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty, took his guests dog-sledding on Friday night shortly after their arrival in the city. February temperatures are typically minus 18C in Iqaluit and the landscape is permafrost, meaning buildings are erected on stilts.