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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Goose season

It’s the sound of spring on the farm. Geese honk as they organize their formation and announce their return to the one-mile stretch of Kemptville Creek that runs along the edge of our property. It’s a goose paradise over there. Too shallow for watercraft other than a canoe. Alive with frogs, beetles, fish and other tiny water creatures. The goose hunters love it too.
A few years ago I was working on a documentary film with the James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec. The setting for many of the interviews was their hunting and fishing communities. I spent a couple of hours in a smokehouse, watching one of the elder women slowly turning a goose on a string over an open fire. Life goes slowly there, in the hunt camp outside Waskaganish. You have lots of time to talk. You learn the almost musical cadence of story-telling. I told stories about my life on the farm. When I mentioned the creek and the influx of geese in spring, I had their attention. When goose season rolled around again, a Cree hunting party arrived at the Fisher farm, ready to harvest.
In Eeyou Istchee, where my Cree friends are from, goose season is a two-week-long holiday from work and school. Multiple generations of families return to their hunt camps near the water. The successful hunters return to the villages with their coolers full of geese and they share it among their neighbours. They have community feasts and practice their traditional way of life. They cook the meat slowly, and use the time to reconnect. It is a time of year that many First Nations People cherish – rich with culture and customs.
The communities of Eeyou Istchee are the most affluent First Nations towns and villages in Canada, because of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA). In the 1970s the first Grand Council of the Crees, led by Grand Chief Billy Diamond, packed very non-traditional clothing in their suitcases and said goodbye to their families. In Montreal, they created quite a vision walking shoulder-to-shoulder down the city street to the courthouse in their new business suits. Tall, dark and strikingly handsome men, their long shining hair flapping in the wind. They were there to make an agreement with the Canadian government that would allow the damming of seven of their rivers in order to produce hydro-electric power. This agreement would be sustainable, to lay the foundation for a successful future for the people of Eeyou Istchee.
As a result, when you go to Nemaska, Mistissini and Waskaganish – a historic spot in Canada’s history where the first Hudson’s Bay fur trading post is clearly marked – you see for the most part tidy little modern homes, expensive trucks and well-dressed people. They have the money to travel ‘down south’ to shop for the things the rest of us take for granted. They are well-connected with high-speed Internet, and cable TV.
The remoteness of the communities, however, is stark. Especially in winter, when the bitter wind makes it too cold to spend a lot of time outside. If you spend a few days you will inevitably encounter a hint of what happens in the truly desperate First Nations communities in Canada.
In places like Attawapiskat this year, many will not have the heart to go on their traditional spring goose hunt. They won’t be able to pack up their things and take their families to their hunt camps for two weeks, as they have every year since time immemorial. Because an illness has descended upon their village, and it is insidious. Pervasive. They don’t know where it will strike next. Children and young people are making suicide pacts, in an attempt to draw the country’s attention to their desperate need.
The people of Attawapiskat need far more than a month’s worth of intensive medical attention by a few psychologists and nurses. Clean running water, warm, adequate housing and functional toilets would be a good start. Yes, I know the problems in our native communities run deep and will take more than simple infrastructure investment to fix. But we have to start somewhere. It just isn’t right that this is happening in our country. I imagine how the people in our remote communities feel when they hear we are bringing in tens of thousands of refugees and giving them a new life. It is the Canadian way, to help others in need.  Every human being deserves the necessities of life.  Once they have those basic things, we can look at the bigger picture.

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