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Goose Break marks the reawakening of Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn May 30, 2024

Marking the beginning of spring and the reawakening of Eeyou Istchee, Goose Break was once again an opportunity to reconnect with the land, family and friends. The Cree Nation Government honoured the annual tradition with a special acknowledgement of land users affected by last summer’s forest fires.

“Let us be mindful that many of us will have a clean-up to do, some repairs and for some, to rebuild what has been lost,” stated Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “What will remain forever strong is our identity, culture and language and our connection to the land which is the source of our survival and cultural practices.”

The Cree Trappers’ Association launched a cabin rebuilding program to cover half the construction cost, which will include metal roofs and two exit doors to mitigate fire risk. Over the next three years, it intends to help build 50 cabins annually to make up for those lost last summer while also covering half the cost of cabin insurance, which increased $400 this year.

With changing ice conditions and migration patterns, the CTA asked land users to report polar bear sightings. As earlier snow melts prevent passage to camps over waterways by snowmobile, community airlift programs are becoming increasingly popular.  

“It’s a lot more convenient to travel safely to their campgrounds,” explained Matthew Wapachee, Mistissini’s spring airlift coordinator. “You’re always planning on the go, and something comes up you have to work into your flight plans. It was kind of hectic but with our group of people it went smoothly.”

Over a two-week period, Mistissini works with a Sept-Îles company called Innukopteres to transport about 200 people to and from their camps. Their four pilots can accommodate about 18 flights daily for shorter distances, although any destination within the community’s territory is permitted. 

Four passengers and their gear can be safely seated in each flight, with many maintaining communications through StarLink satellite internet. Low visibility prevented flights on only one day. Wapachee said the helicopters provided crucial assistance for a search and rescue operation and transporting Mistissini firefighters to a minor bushfire. 

“The biggest challenge is when everyone wants to come back on the same day,” said Wapachee. “On May 12 we had a total of 39 flights to manage to get people out of their camps. Nowadays we have certain obligations – school, work.”

While Louie Mianscum could formerly travel around his camp on Penicouane Bay by skidoo throughout April, earlier melts in recent years have forced him to return by chopper. Wood gathering and other preparations are now done in February or March and hunting tactics have evolved. 

“When the ice is melting fast, we have no choice but to use the ambush style of using a boat blind while they’re in the water,” explained Mianscum. “We can’t do what we used to – you’ve got to be extra careful.”

After 11 days of good hunting on Lake Mistassini, Mianscum visited cousins at Coldwater Lake and Chibougamau Lake to fill his freezer ahead of a big feast he hosts every year when his son, NHL prospect Israel Mianscum, returns home. He said his sons always join part of the hunt, a family tradition he carries forward from his late father, who spent his last day preparing the camp for the following year.

“He went there by himself in October (2014) and I don’t know what happened, but he drowned,” said Mianscum. “We found his body right in front of the camp. It’s important for me to stay at the camp. I don’t know how to explain but it’s like closure. It brings good memories.”

Unfortunately, this year’s Goose Break was not without tragedy. The Cree Nation mourned the Weistche-Georgekish family’s devastating loss of three-year-old Louie Andrew (aka Louie Boy), who went missing on May 1 at Octave River (Sheebeshkw). The Waskaganish community came together on May 14 to pray for his return. 

For some, Goose Break is a time for healing on the land or reconnecting with ancestral teachings. Greg Mark-Stewart devoted time to repairing wooden decoys made by his late grandfather and cleaning his campsite, which he was taught always leads to a good harvest. He donated many of his geese to single mothers and families without hunters. 

Up in Whapmagoostui, Joshua J. Kawapit harvested geese for the first time since his father passed away 19 years ago. Since moving back to the community about seven years ago after a decade down south, he’s been slowly returning to his traditional roots by going back to the foundations of what his father taught him, fishing and hunting small game like grouse and ptarmigan before gradually moving up to bigger game. 

“It was harder than I expected it to be,” admitted Kawapit. “I still remember as if it was yesterday the first time I got a goose – I was 4 or 5. We were taught at a very young age. That’s the type of excitement I felt again.”

The majority of Kawapit’s youth was spent out at camp with his family, two to three months at a time in both spring and fall. While the long absences left him two years behind in school and resulted in his two older brothers dropping out once they reached the age of majority, Kawapit eventually asked to stay behind to finish his secondary studies. 

Always taught to respect the animals that sacrifice their lives, Kawapit said this year’s first harvest brought a mixture of elation and slight remorse. Retrieving the goose before it vanished over the rapids was another challenge. Since the 2021 landslide 4km upriver from Kawapit’s cabin, bearded seals and other wildlife are no longer seen, people can’t fish where they used to and fallen logs prevent boats from travelling upstream. 

“A tradition we still hold dear in Whapmagoostui is whenever you harvest something of significance, we give it to someone of significance,” said Kawapit. “The last time I killed a goose, two of my children were not born yet. Now that I’m a grandpa, I thought it would be significant if I gifted the goose to my granddaughter.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.