The spring time goose hunt has always been a big part of our culture and tradition on the James Bay coast. It is a period that has been part of our way of life for thousands of years. People up the coast look forward to seeing the annual migration of thousands of geese coming back north. After a long winter, the geese bring a sense of relief as they are a natural source of food that can be harvested by our people.
Hunters and gatherers from my home community and other remote northern First Nations take part in the annual goose hunt every year. The hunt takes place in distant places and far from the industrialized world in the south. Harvesting food on the land has never been a concern for us as we think that the modern world in the south does not affect us much in the north. In the past, we never had to think about the Canada Goose, Snow Goose and Wavy as in any way contaminated. We viewed the birds as natural and organic.
In the 1980s, the biggest concern we had about the hunt was the use of lead buckshot in shotgun shells. At first when shotguns came into use on the James Bay coast in the early part of the last century, there was a small amount of lead buckshot used every year because of the fact that this form of ammunition was produced by hand. By the 1970s, shotgun shells were being mass-produced and were cheaper to buy, which made it easier for hunters during the hunting season.
Unfortunately, lead buckshot can become lodged in the flesh of a bird and can be consumed by people who eat the meat. We learned as children not to swallow these small pebbles of lead while we ate. In later years, there was cause for concern as to the amount of buckshot that was being spread over the land. It was adding up to tons of lead, year after year, by hundreds of hunters throughout the north. Now lead buckshot has more or less been replaced with steel shot as a more environmental and health-conscious alternative.
In recent years I have discovered other reasons to be careful about how many wild geese I eat. I have travelled to many cities and towns in southern Ontario where I witnessed large numbers of geese. It thrilled me to see so many geese in the parks and on the waterways. Many of these birds are now accustomed to living amongst humans and around enclosed parks and wildlife shelters. I was shocked to see that in many instances the geese were living in and feeding on very polluted and possibly toxic areas.
Up north we always think of the geese feeding on pristine land and water and we don’t make the connection that for part of the year they are eating garbage in the south.
Up until this point, I never really thought of where migratory birds like the Canada Goose go every year. These birds fly thousands of kilometres every year from as far north as the Arctic all the way down to the southern United States. They are safe in the natural and untouched shelter of the far north. However, in the south, geese live and feed on modern agricultural farms that use manure, pesticides and herbicides. Geese are able to fly to any destination to find food but when in the south in highly populated and industrialized areas they also spend time near factories, manufacturing plants, chemical plants and all sorts of other unsafe areas. When these birds fly north, they bring with them all the contamination and chemicals in their bodies which we unsuspectedly consume.
Now, there is a new concern for those who eat wild geese each spring. Recently, I read a news story about the fact that scientists are suggesting that these birds can potentially become vectors or deliverers of superbugs. Scientists have found through testing done on Canada Geese that these birds can pick up and shed antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
This means that Canada Geese who live and feed in agricultural areas in the south can come into contact with animal or human waste and become exposed to new and dangerous pathogens. In turn, they can then potentially deliver the pathogen thousands of kilometres away during their migration. So far, there have been no proven incidents happening but there is concern that this is possible in a world where there are a growing number of antibiotic-resistant organisms that can make us unwell.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to alarm anyone. After all, the goose hunt is part of who we Cree are as a people. However, I think that the best way for people in the north to deal with this situation is to eat a more balanced diet. I also believe that it would be safer to eat more terrestrial animals like moose, caribou or rabbit as they do not migrate into dangerous areas that can affect their health and ours. It is a mistake to think that we are safe and sound from all the dangers of the world here up north. We all have to wake up and realize that any pollution or disregard for Mother Earth anywhere in the world at some point ends up in our own backyard and maybe even on our dinner plate.