For These Cree First Nations, Canada Geese Are Central to Cultural Revival

In Northern Canada, Indigenous traditions surrounding the annual waterfowl hunt have stayed resilient to challenges.

At age 3, Agnes Morgan begged her father to take her on a goose hunt, and in April 1942, he did. She watched as he and other hunters formed makeshift decoys, marking small goose-shaped snow mounds with black ash outside the circular wall of snow they’d built as a blind. While everyone else hid within the structure, Morgan’s father sent her, bundled up in a white rabbit pelt coat, and her small white dog out to wander among the faux birds. Their movements would make Canada Geese flying overhead believe other birds had just landed—at least, that was the idea.

The hunters began honking, which brought the large waterbirds so low that Morgan can still hear the shifting feathers of their wings. “It seemed like there was a million of them, and I started to cry. And of course, the geese flew, the dog took off, and I don’t think they brought any geese home,” she says. “My dad was not pleased at all.” 

When that hunt took place, nearly eight decades ago, Morgan’s Waskaganish people were just one of the Cree nations in Northern Canada that depended on the arrival of geese for their survival—the returning migratory birds were the first source of fresh meat after winter.

But Cree cultural traditions and languages in this region have suffered, beginning with the early arrival of Europeans and continuing with mid-20th century industrialization that degraded the ecosystems and food sources they depended upon. In the 1970s large hydroelectric development projects further reshaped traditional lands and waters, altering hunting patterns. Instead of living off the land in the bush, Cree people began to live primarily in permanent villages, putting hunting traditions in jeopardy. 

Today, the annual spring goose hunt has flourished, after many decades of Cree communities fighting to keep their traditions and language alive. Members of 11 Cree nations along James Bay and southeastern Hudson Bay take part in the spring goose hunt, embracing a cultural event that bonds communities and families together back on the land. “It's a way of honoring your past, your history,” Morgan says. “You're proud of where you come from so you treasure it, and that starts right from as a child.” 

There have been modern tweaks. Historically, the hunt was the domain of men, and the first kill was an important rite of passage for 7- to 10-year-old boys. Now it’s common for entire families to take part, including girls and women. Schools calendars mark the Goose Break, and businesses close so owners and employees can take part in the weeks-long effort.

Time in the hunting camps offers a profound multi-generational experience. Everyone snowmobiles to the camps in the first or second week of April to prepare. They haul firewood and hunt small game like partridge and rabbits until the geese arrive. When the snow begins to melt, creating small ponds and puddles of drinking water, the geese, or niska in Cree, begin to appear, says John Turner, land-use plan coordinator for the Moose Cree First Nation in northern Ontario. Equipped with a shotgun, the hunters use their own voices to mimic goose calls—just as Morgan’s father and his companions did—luring migrating birds toward the blinds.

At the hunting camps, community members also conduct important ceremonies and transfer knowledge to younger generations. In the walking out ceremony, young children in traditional hunting and clothing mimic the shooting of a goose (guns replaced bows and arrows by the 18th century). Morgan’s daughter, Shaunna Morgan Siegers, says the ceremony signifies that the child will fulfill the parent’s wishes to be a good hunter. Young children learn goose calls, and the importance of respecting nature and the birds’ them­selves. They’re taught not to waste any part of the animal. Feathers are saved to make a goose blanket, and the down is separated to pack into pillows and blankets.

In Turner’s community, if you ask any school-age kid to draw a picture, they’ll probably draw a goose or goose hunting camp, he says: “Teachers really notice when they come here, all these kids are interested in is geese." 

As those children know, the spring tradition is about much more than hunting. “People have an interest in protecting and conserving bird habitat as the spring hunt is such an important part of life in the community,” Turner says. “The spring goose hunt also has a spiritual aspect in terms of the return of the birds and the renewal of life and the warming weather.” And when children grow up, and some move far from home, the Goose Break offers an opportunity to return, says Brendan Forward, a member of the Cree Nation of Mistissini. "It’s a time to be with family, to be on the land and to celebrate our Cree traditions. That became more important over the years, as I lived in Atlantic Canada for my schooling," he says.  

Increasing numbers of Canada Geese have also buoyed the hunt’s resurgence. The overall population has bounced back across North America since the early 1900s, when widespread overhunting threatened the species. In some places, the birds are so numerous today they can be a nuisance, especially for farmers whose crops they eat. People in Morgan’s community will travel south to farms around Ottawa to hunt the geese before they become pests. “There’s too many geese eating their crops and not enough people eating them,” says her daughter, Morgan Siegers.

Today, however, climate and ecological changes are posing new challenges to birds and people who hunt them. In the James Bay region, the birds’ migratory path has moved further inland because the eelgrass that many waterfowl like to eat is disappearing, possibly due to increased fresh water and sediment making its way into James Bay, and some combination of deforestation, climate change, and algae growth. As part of the James Bay Eelgrass Project, scientists alongside Cree community members are studying the causes. “The geese don’t fly along the coast like they used to,” says Morgan Siegers. 

Still, the hunt is proving resilient in the face of this year’s most difficult of times. As the birds returned from their overwintering sites to the south to begin breeding this spring, the hunt proceeded in many areas even as the global COVID-19 pandemic ramped up. Turner says that his community’s chief and council helped people get to their hunting camps, with extra groceries and helicopter trips—helpful for the return home, when ice is melting—for people who couldn’t afford them.  

“At that point,” he says, “out there was the safest place to be."

This piece was corrected to reflect that people hunt, not trap, geese at farms in Ottawa.