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Goose Break

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Issue: 46 Section: Food Geography: North Eeyou Istchee Topics: food security, Indigenous, climate change

May 27, 2007

Goose Break

The changing climate and hunting in the North

by Jaime Little

This year, lakes that would normally be frozen are open water, and the geese are passing right overhead. Photo: Gene Wilburn/Creative Commons

It can be hard to concentrate when you're stuck inside a stuffy classroom in springtime. For the kids of Eeyou Istchee, the territory of the James Bay Cree, it can be nearly unbearable: after a long winter, the sunlight is getting warmer every day and the sound of the first Canada geese flying overhead can drive the entire classroom -- as well as the janitor, principal and everyone else in town -- to the window to gaze up at this graceful embodiment of the changing seasons.

Kids as young as four years old can do a perfect two-tone goose call. A few well-executed throaty honks, and the whole flock will change course, circle gently and alight on the lake.

In these communities, Goose Break is a big deal. It's a two-week holiday during which schools and offices close, and just about every family heads into the bush to hunt geese and hang out at the camp. Sort of like France in August, and bigger than Christmas, the communities become ghost towns as everything is put on hold to allow people to go after the geese.

But Goose Break's character -- and timing -- has changed over the past few years. Parents pull their kids out of school as much as two weeks in advance of the scheduled start of the break, because the geese don’t follow the calendar and they’re coming sooner than the school board has calculated. Experienced hunters put their snowmobiles away earlier and earlier, not willing to risk their lives on ice that is thinner with each passing spring. Even the elders, whose advice has been followed closely for decades, are not always able to predict the weather patterns. No one can be sure whether crossing the river at the regular spot is still a safe bet, and every year there are stories of seasoned hunters going through the ice. Some families opt to hire a helicopter -- not a cheap ride -- to get to and from their favourite hunting grounds, rather than travel over the lakes and rivers as they have done for generations.

Scanning the skies, hunters watch in wonder as flocks continue heading northward. Usually, Canada geese can be coaxed out of the sky if they see ice below on which to land. But this year, lakes that would normally be frozen are open water, and the geese are passing right overhead.

A Cree boy usually shoots his first goose at age nine or ten, and the whole camp celebrates with a feast in his honour. The goose's head is preserved as a keepsake -- a symbol of this transition from childhood to maturity. But some mothers are beginning to wonder how long the tradition will continue. There are plenty of geese this year -- fluttery heaps of feathers outside the camps attest to that -- but with so much changing so quickly, it's hard not to speculate about re-scheduling Goose Break for early March next year. Some worry that it will be cancelled altogether by the time this year’s first-time hunters have kids of their own.

Recipe for Shigabon (Canada goose roasted over an open fire)

-Pluck the goose

-Chop off the wings, feet and head. These can be boiled to make soup

-Run two slender pieces of wood crosswise through the goose, at the points where the wings and legs attach to the body

-Tie a string to these wooden sticks

-In the tipi, place fresh pine boughs on the floor to create a heavenly aroma

-Before building a fire at the centre of the tipi, install wooden poles horizontally at about shoulder height over the fire

-Suspend the goose by its string from the wooden poles over the fire

-Place a stainless steel bowl or tray below the goose to catch the drippings

-Roast, turning occasionally, until the goose is thoroughly cooked –- about three hours. Try hanging it with the breast side down for the first two hours, then turn to cook the other side for the final hour

-Serve along with drippings

Jaime Little works with CBC North Quebec

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