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12-year-old Eastmain hunter opens goose hunt amid calls to follow COVID-19 bush guidelines

This year, officials with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay are asking hunters to take special precautions and measures to stay safe while away for Goose Break because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cree health board releases COVID-19 bush camp guidelines to keep families safe

Hilton John Weapenicappo, 12, opens the 2020 Conn River goose hunt, wearing his late father Alex Cheezo's white hunting jacket. (Submitted by Sidney Weappenicappo)

For Hilton John Weapenicappo of Eastmain, Que., this year's Goose Break holiday, an annual tradition for Cree in northern Quebec, got off to a really good start. 

Monday, the 12-year-old hunter got the first kill of this year at the Conn River Goose Break camp, which is located along the James Bay coast just north of Eastmain — a 16-hour drive north of Montreal.

"The first time I saw geese coming toward our blind I was very excited to see them flying," said Hilton John, who ended up killing two geese to open the season around 10:30 Monday morning. 

Hunting geese returning from the South in the springtime is an important annual tradition for Quebec Cree and one practiced for thousands of years.

Each year, families head out to bush camps, usually at the beginning of May, for several weeks.

The first time I saw geese coming toward our blind I was very excited.- Hilton John Weapenicappo, 12-year-old Eastmain hunter

His grandfather, Sidney Weapenicappo, was very pleased to see Hilton John get the camp's first kill.

Sidney Weapenicappo, left, says they are trying to follow COVID-19 guidelines put out by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. (Submitted by Sidney Weapenicappo)

"I taught him to respect his hunting," said Weapenicappo in Cree on Monday. 

"He woke up early, and was knocking on our door waking us up. Our elders said 'When you wake up early to go hunting, it is a good omen'," said Weapenicappo. 

"It may be why he was given the bounty." 

COVID-19 bush camp protocols

This year, officials with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB) are asking hunters to take special precautions and measures to stay safe while away for Goose Break because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CBHSSJB has put together some bush camp guidelines with advice and protocols to help keep people safe while getting to and from camp and while at camp.

"We've been working very closely with the Cree Trappers Association," said Bella M. Petawabano, chairperson with the Cree health board. 

"[Camp is] a good place where people can go to re-energize themselves ... be active in the bush and continue to be able to hunt. But of course there are potential risks." 

Lorraine Weapenicappo, left, Hilton John's grandmother, helps to pluck the geese he killed. (Submitted by Sidney Weapenicappo)

Some of the measures Cree health is recommending include shopping for supplies as much as possible in your community, wearing a mask while travelling to camp by bush plane and keeping six feet of physical distance from people you don't share a household with. 

The guidelines also have tips for regularly disinfecting the camp and outhouse and making sure boiled water is available for people to be able to wash hands regularly, as well as other suggestions and measures.

Being the hunter who gets the first kill of the season, like Hilton John did Monday, is an honour and one that is usually celebrated at the camp by sharing the meat. 

Also, when a young hunter gets his or her first kill, it is an event celebrated by the whole community with a big feast. 

But this year, Cree health is also recommending people not host any feasts while away for Goose Break because of COVID-19. 

Conn River Goose Break camp near Eastmain, Que. Cree health is recommending people avoid gathering for first kill feasts and other ceremonies during this year's Goose Break because of COVID-19. (Submitted by Sidney Weapenicappo)

"People are being told what they need to do, not to have big gatherings but rather they can still share the food by distribution from one cabin to another," said Petawabano.

Petawabano is also recommending if people plan a walking out ceremony, they do so with only the immediate family.

Walking out ceremonies are meant to represent a child's first encounter with nature. It is a ceremony that is often held in the spring and can include several extended families gathering together, something CBHSSJB says needs to be avoided this year to keep Cree communities safe. 

Petawabano is also asking for people to really think twice about going visiting by snowmobile to other families' camps. 

We work to be more hygienic.- Sidney Weapenicappo, Eastmain hunter

Sidney Weappenicappo said they are doing their best to follow the guidelines laid out by the Cree health board. 

"We have two cabins that our families live in, and we can't be totally socially distancing, but we work to be more hygienic," said Weappenicappo.

He also said that Hilton John's grandparents on his father's side came to get some of the goose meat from his first kill of the season, as is Cree tradition.

It was a particularly special kill because it happened soon after the fifth anniversary of Hilton John's father's death in a snowmobile race accident. 

Alex Cheezo was killed during a cross-country race in Eastmain on March 28, 2015.

Hilton John now hunts in his late father's white jacket, something that makes his mom happy. 

"I'm so proud of my son, the jacket he wore for hunting, and harvesting his first geese this Spring was his late father's snow camouflage jacket," said Beth June Weapenicappo.

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