As geese return to northern skies, Cree families are planning for the traditional spring hunt that is a cherished connection to the land and culture. And just as many were just arriving at their camps, Willie Shecapio Blacksmith was celebrating the first goose kill of the season April 7 in Ouje-Bougoumou.
It was a fitting time for Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty to announce investments of over $2 million for Cree entities supporting language and cultural revitalization. The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association and Nishiiyuu Council of Elders were the first to receive additional funding, while the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) and Cree Nation Youth Council will soon make similar announcements.
“Goose Break is a time to reflect and plan for the season,” said Chisasibi Chief Daisy House during the ceremony. “It’s one of the places where we use our Cree language the most. Our vocabulary is different when we are out on the land. It’s medicine for the mind, body and spirit – pure excitement in the air for the younger and older generation.”
While spring came early last year, better ice conditions now have resulted in more hunters travelling by snowmobile to bring supplies to their camps. With the lifting of many pandemic restrictions, Cree hunters have already begun harvesting geese in popular southern destinations.
“Since the pandemic started, a lot of people have gone back to the land,” said CTA executive director Thomas Stevens. “I think a lot of people have been building cabins and making new camps. The best place to be was at the camp away from Covid. That’s what people did, went away for Goose Break and stayed there weeks or months longer.”
The challenges of meeting with tallymen during the pandemic partly inspired the creation of the CTA’s mobile app in 2020 for reporting harvests, ice conditions and signs of climate change. Stevens said people have been reporting the first sightings of geese, snow melt and other wildlife observations.
Hunters should also be aware of reports about ice safety and cases of the Avian flu, which has recently been discovered among commercial flocks and wild birds in southern Quebec. As the risk of humans catching this virus is very low, the Cree Health Board and CTA emphasize it’s still safe to go hunting during Goose Break but recommend taking added precautions.
“We don’t want to catch the Avian flu, but we don’t want to scare anyone,” Stevens told the Nation. “Make sure you know if there are any cases of Avian flu in the territory. We try to remind people who will be plucking geese to take precautions. If you identify a sick bird, don’t touch it and make sure to wear gloves.”
Sick birds can be identified by easily visible symptoms, including extensive swelling or discoloration, difficulty moving and unexplained mass mortality. To avoid risk of contamination, the Cree Health Board recommends wearing separate clothing for hunting and handling your harvest, plucking and gutting in the field with access to handwashing, and avoiding fowl suspected of being infected.
Stevens also emphasized the importance of gun safety. As the expanding population in Eeyou Istchee leads to more people at camps, it’s essential to identify whatever you’re shooting and be aware of where other people are. He said guns should always be unloaded as soon as you leave your blind.
“I’m an instructor for gun safety and I always tell students the importance of being safe on the land,” said Stevens. “Once you get out from your blind, everything should come out. Make sure your gun is put away from kids. It’s your responsibility as a gun owner to protect the people around you.”
Stevens recommended avoiding outings alone because anything can happen during hunting season and ice conditions can be particularly unpredictable. He said to always inform your family where you’re going hunting and keep a radio nearby just in case.
“The Elders have mentioned they see less geese flying in the coastal region and more inland,” shared Stevens. “We do see the migration patterns changing over time, so we adapt how we hunt. The Cree Trappers’ Association wish you a happy and safe Goose Break.”
Just in time for Goose Break, a new exhibition at the Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City, in collaboration with Indigenous non-profit La Boîte Rouge VIF, invites visitors into an immersive Cree cultural experience. The Grand Chief and musician Charlie Ottereyes attended the inauguration of the exhibit, which runs until September 5.
Eeyou Istchee: An Invitation to Live the Land features 360º footage of traditional Goose Break activities projected in a dome, provided by Waswanipi’s Ian Saganash, with explanations narrated by Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash available on adjacent electronic tablets.
“It really makes you feel like you’re there at the camp,” Saganash told the Nation. “We tried to share everything as much as possible – cooking, cleaning out the teepees, getting wood, hunting and we even managed to film my cousin’s walking out ceremony. Some people think we still live in teepees so it’s nice to share our culture in the museum.”
When pandemic protocols prevented a camera team from coming North, they mailed a special camera to Saganash and provided instructions over Zoom. Although it wasn’t always easy carrying the extra gear and capturing the geese on camera while hunting, Saganash said it was a fun experience and a valuable opportunity to share Cree realities with the outside world.
From camouflaged hunting on the open water to decoy making and traditional food preparations, the 18-minute documentary is an intimate tribute to the Cree way of life. Saganash is excited that Goose Break is almost here to share this cultural treasure with his three children.
“Goose Break is not just a vacation – it’s a time to rejuvenate and heal, spend time with family and enjoy good food,” said Saganash.
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter