The year’s first Goose Break has long been an essential aspect of culture in Eeyou Istchee as a celebration of spring’s arrival and an opportunity to practice traditional skills fundamental to Cree values. This year it has assumed a new significance as leaders encourage as many people as possible to avoid both infection and long periods of isolation in their communities by enjoying the healing qualities of the land.
“Our people know the best place to be is in the bush,” said Jason Coonishish, the Cree Health Board’s coordinator of pre-hospital and emergency measures. “They’re isolated in their homes but being in the bush makes them stronger and healthier. Everybody is aware that being in the bush heals you.”
With schools and most businesses closed during the outbreak, a $1.6 million emergency fund was launched earlier this spring to support longer stays at hunting camps for higher numbers of people. It also helps hunters avoid higher-risk areas near Ottawa and Montreal that have become increasingly popular in recent years.
“There is a big difference [this year],” Coonishish told the Nation. “A lot more people are in the bush. All entities are reporting their employees are taking an extra week because the geese are behind. It’s been a cold spring, so the geese are taking their time to come up North.”
One result of more people in the bush has been more medical airlifts than usual – at press time, there had already been 11. The CHB has secured two additional helicopters for airlifts this year, including one specifically designated for Covid-19 patients. Although no medivacs so far were related to the virus, conditions created by the pandemic may have played a role.
“Everybody is more cautious,” explained Coonishish. “Some elderly people don’t want to go the clinic because of Covid-19. When they’re called by their local clinics some say they’re good but when they go to the bush a couple days later, they fall ill.”
Those requiring help in the bush should first call their local clinic or relay the message via walkie-talkie with exact coordinates of their location. A nurse will evaluate whether a plane or helicopter is needed and call the Cree Trappers’ Association local dispatch if necessary. The medivac will bring them directly to the community where an ambulance will deliver them to the clinic.
While being in the bush helps prevent transmission of the virus, there are still risks associated with pre-departure preparations, potential exposure during transportation and limited access to direct medical services. The Cree Nation Government (CNG) has provided various guidelines to help keep people safe and healthy.
Screening families before departure is essential. People with fever, sore throats, body aches, or who are coughing and sneezing, should remain isolated at home. The CNG advises buying provisions locally, alleviating pressures on stores by purchasing and distributing supplies in bulk.
Precautionary measures should continue in the bush. A disinfectant solution can be made using one-part bleach to nine parts water to clean the camp, especially high-touch surfaces and cooking utensils. Carry your own cups and knives and don’t share cigarettes or drinks.
Transport Canada’s directive to wear masks on bush planes has already proven effective in one case in which someone tested positive for Covid-19 upon landing in a community but didn’t spread it to other passengers. To keep two metres (or three geese) apart at camps, Coonishish recommends hunting as in the old days – alone in the blind.
Families and hunting groups must be especially cautious about visiting or receiving guests from other camps. Although the CHB initially advised against having walking-out ceremonies this year, Coonishish said they could be held at the end of Goose Break if physical distancing protocols are respected.
“It will be safe because we would know if they developed symptoms in the first 10 days at the camp,” he explained. “After that everybody’s safe so you can have your walking-out ceremony. People appreciate having a good feast at the end of Goose Break.”
As more children are expected to join their families in the bush this year, the Cree School Board (CSB) has created many activities to continue their learning on their online learning platform. With no school to return to, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to reengage with traditional land-based learning experiences.
“At this time, when it seems that the situation is always uncertain, the land remains constant,” CSB chairperson Sarah Pash noted on social media. “Whether we are able to be out on the land at this time or not, it remains part of who we are; our love for it and connection to it never wavers.”
For those who couldn’t get into the bush, the CHB served 60 traditional goose suppers on Mother’s Day for clients and their families in Montreal for medical reasons. Hunters Bobby Patton and Raymond Duff provided the geese and Chef Norma Condo from Miqmak Catering Indigenous Kitchen led the cooking.
As frontline workers and other community members continue to provide essential services during these challenging times, leaders want to reassure people that following health directives will lead to brighter days. According to the CNG, a successful return from Goose Break will determine the first steps toward deconfinement in June.
“Being with a healthy family and loved ones is more important than the size of the harvest,” stated Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “May this Goose Break be one that shows the unity of our people and the care we have for one another in Eeyou Istchee.”