Just as Crees throughout Eeyou Istchee are gearing up to hit the bush for the 2008 goose break, a lot of talk has surrounded the use of lead shotgun shells despite the fact that they have been outlawed for over a decade.

The Cree Health Board (CHB) contacted the Nation recently in regards to its campaign to encourage the folks in the communities to switch from old-school lead shots to newer non-toxic ones, such as the steel, bismuth, copper or tungsten shots. Lead shots were banned in the late 90’s because of the toxic effects that they have on humans, wildlife and the environment. The most common lead poisoning in birds is considered to be the result of ingestion of spent lead shots used for waterfowl hunting.

Dr. Elizabeth Robinson, a medical consultant at the CHB, said, “This is an issue about lead and we have been aware for about 10 years that the level of lead in some individuals has reached high-ish levels. So far nobody has gotten lead poisoning and most of them are not (on the verge). The government sets a level at which the blood lead has to be declared to the public health department and that level has gone down because even at these low levels there can be these subtle effects that are not frank. Like a child might not do as well as in school as he would if his blood level was lower. So the cut off is pretty low and we have been aware for about 10 years that there are people mainly in one Cree community that have high-ish levels.

“We know it’s not much of a problem for the inland Cree communities as we did a specific study there. But we are not too sure about the other coastal communities, although there have never been any people with high levels declared, except one or two in the other communities.”

While lead shotgun shells are still available in most communities’ general and sporting-good stores as they are still legal to possess and legal for skeet shooting, they are not available in the rest of the province at regular retailers. Therefore it is up to the discretion of Cree hunters to choose whether to make the switch to the non-toxic version for the sake of their own health as the Cree communities are so expansive that it is unlikely that anyone would ever be penalized for hunting waterfowl with them.

Though the CHB had concerns about the use of lead shots, by the same token it could not stress enough how it is really not out to “harass” hunters nor discourage anyone from eating traditional game meat. “It’s to protect the geese because they were dying from swallowing these lead pellets and lead is a highly poisonous metal even in small quantities. It’s not like there is a level of lead you can have in your system, any amount is really not good,” explained Robinson.

When the CHB contacted the Nation in regards to the lead issue, it was also concerned with how the communities would react when it came to its commenting on hunting practices to the extent that the Board was reluctant to mention which specific community had the lead issue. Thankfully the Cree Trappers Association (CTA) was also in the loop when it came to heightened lead levels in some individuals in Whapmagoostui.

Originally both the CHB and the Nation were under the assumption that some community members were presenting higher levels of lead in their systems due to lead shots used in goose hunting but Eastmain CTA representative Rick Cuciurean has his own theory. “If you are getting high lead levels like in Whapmagoostui, I would submit that it’s probably from ptarmigan because they get a lot more of ptarmigan up there and some people are ingesting the lead with the ptarmigan.”

Still, because lead is dangerous the CHB is looking to discourage the use of the shots altogether and will most likely be conducting various awareness campaigns such as skeet shooting with non-toxic bullets to encourage hunters to make the switchover. Though it is now common knowledge that lead shots are not the healthiest option, still, according to Paul Linton, a nurse and manager in the Public Health Dept of the CBH in Mistissini, some are still using them because they prefer their performance.

“Because the lead bullet is heavier, it takes more force to get it going and therefore it’s slower and so you have to make an adjustment to aim if you are used to lead and switching over to steel. People who hunt a lot like the Crees, their aiming has become so automatic that they don’t think about aiming, it’s an automatic reflex. Now hunters have to relearn how to shoot and aim. And, when you think about the Elders, like think of some old man who is in his 50s who has been hunting for 40 years with lead shots, are we really going to try to get to retrain him to hunt with steel?” asked Linton.

At that the issue can be touchy for some hunters as Linton explained as, “Hunting is done mostly by men and men seem to have a fair amount of pride, especially in being able to hunt. So that I think makes it a big thing when it comes to how easily they will switch from lead to steel. I made the switch six or seven years ago but gee whiz, I paid for it too.”

Since his switchover, Linton has fully regained his ability to hunt as have the majority of Cree community members who have taken the time to adjust to the switch.

For more information on why non-toxic shots are better for waterfowl, the environment and the health of Cree community members, go to http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/DSE/nren-rt.nsf/LinkView/1AB58A95BFA05A82CA257376001 B78E64C 0F4B06AF0C57A6CA25737600IBACI0