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The French-language weekly of the Great Canadian North

In the Cree territory of James Bay in Quebec, goose hunting is a very important cultural period for families who meet in their camps in the spring when the geese return. (Photo credit: Nelly Guidici)

The H5N1 avian flu strain was officially detected in the Yukon Territory on May 27, 2022. The disease is also present in all Canadian provinces and the first case appeared in Newfoundland in December 2021.

According to a May 27, 2022 news release, the Animal Health Section of the Government of Yukon and the Canadian Wildlife Service of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) reported that analysis of two waterfowl specimens – a Canada goose and a trumpeter swan – from the south of the territory revealed the presence of the highly contagious H5N1 strain.

“Migratory wild birds are carriers of the virus. Spring migration is underway and further detections of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the Yukon are likely,” says Yukon government program veterinarian Kristenn Magnusson.

The territorial government says it takes this situation seriously and asks the public to report the presence of sick or dead wild birds for analysis.

The Yukon is the first territory to be affected by the avian flu. For Eric Reed, migratory bird expert for ECCC, based in Yellowknife, the arrival of this strain in the North was only a matter of time. However, questions remain about the extent of the animal pandemic in the long term.

“There is uncertainty about the deleterious effect of the virus over time,” he said.

Based on the migration routes of six species of ducks and geese that use the Pacific flyway, an estimate of the likely arrival of avian influenza in the North has been developed by ECCC experts . As of July 19, 2022, the H5N1 strain is expected to be present in Alaska and Yukon on the Beaufort Sea coast, Northwest Territories, as well as south of the Northwest Passage in Nunavut.

If to date no case has been detected in this territory, the government of Nunavut says it is nevertheless worried by the situation.

“Avian flu is a concern in Nunavut, as many Nunavummiut hunt wild birds and collect wild eggs as part of their diet,” said Chris Puglia, Communications Manager for the Government of Nunavut.

The importance of cooking meat

As of April 5, 2022, the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services reported the information concerning a first case of avian flu in Quebec on its Facebook page. Shared more than 1,600 times through this social network, the message has generated great interest and comments from members of the various communities in this region. Spring goose hunting is a widespread family activity, especially within the Cree communities of the Eeyou Istchee territory in the James Bay region.

For the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay, it is always safe to go goose hunting during spring migration, a period called Goose Break. If the cases of transmission of the virus to humans are rare, the Council recommends however to respect certain rules to avoid risks of human contamination by a sufficient cooking of the meat. According to the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, it is impossible to contract avian flu by ingesting cooked food.

“The virus cannot survive heat, it is advisable to cook food at a temperature of 70 degrees Celsius (the flesh should not have a pinkish tint) to ensure that its consumption does not pose any risk. As for the eggs, they must be well cooked, including the yolk,” reads the website of the organization that reports to the federal government.

Cases of transmission of the virus to humans are rare, but it is recommended to follow certain rules to avoid the risk of human contamination by cooking meat at 70 degrees Celsius. (Photo credit: Nelly Guidici)

The knowledge of the elders

Robbie Kawapit has been Chief of the Cree First Nation of Whapmagoostui in Quebec since 2020. He just spent four weeks hunting geese in the heart of Cree territory. This year, the hunting season was different, because a lot of information was relayed before and during the hunt, on the community radio, but also between the families who were in their camps. According to him, the elders of the community have a lot of knowledge and expertise to share. It is in this context that several elders took the floor and spoke to the families to allay certain fears.

“We hunters know when something is wrong with the animals or when they behave differently or look different, we catch those things. The elders explained that this was not the first time this had happened and that this situation had happened before. They recommended taking some precautions and not eating an animal [qui n’a pas l’air en bonne santé] “, he says during an interview.

Goose hunting is an important time of year when families get together and celebrate the return of the geese. However, the unpredictability of the spread and range of the virus among migratory bird populations during the summer raises questions, which have not yet been answered.

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