The Cree are hunters and trappers, whose survival in the past depended on skill with firearms. Today, with stores in every community, people no longer rely on hunting to provide their meals, but it remains central to Cree culture and most households own at least one gun. With all these firearms, people need to be especially concerned with safety. “People need to know how to handle firearms properly to avoid injury to themselves and others,” says Paul Coon-Come. Since 1995, the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA) has offered the Canadian Firearms Safety (CFS) course as well as the Introduction to Hunting with Firearms (IHF). Coon-Come, general manager of the CTA, is also the CFS course’s senior instructor in charge of training other instructors to teach the importance of firearms storage, transportation, handling and display.
“There have been quite a few incidents where people are walking around their community with firearms, so we really have to educate them on the importance of safely storing their guns,” says Coon-Come. “It’s one of the main things we stress.” When it comes to guns, good locks are critical: when not being used, Coon-Come says, firearms should be unloaded and locked in a firearms storage cabinet or similar container. Similar concerns apply to firearms in transport, which must also be kept unloaded and under lock and key. “Only when people arrive at their hunting site can they unlock and load their firearms,” says Coon-Come. “When you are not hunting, you must keep them unloaded; there should be no ammunition in the magazine.”
As George Diamond, Cree Public Health’s program officer for injury prevention, points out, there are also good legal reasons to store guns securely. “You are the person legally responsible for your firearms, so if you lock them up and keep the key, no-one else can use them – they have to go through you,” he says. If there is no way to store them safely in your house, you need to find another place – someone else’s gun cabinet, or even the local police station – where they can be kept securely locked. “I am saddened when I hear of firearms injuries,” says Diamond. “It shouldn’t happen in Eeyou Istchee because we’re a hunting society and we should be taking care of our tools.”
The CFS course taught by Coon-Come and the CTA’s other instructors aims to ensure that everyone knows how to do just that. Because serious accidents can happen when loading or unloading, instructors explain and demonstrate four vital ACTS of firearms safety: Assume every firearm is loaded; Control the muzzle direction; Trigger finger is kept off the trigger and out of the trigger guard; See that the firearm is safe & unloaded. And then they show students how to PROVE their firearm safe: Point the firearm in the safest direction; Remove all cartridges; Observe the chamber; Verify the feeding path; and Examine the bore each time you pick up the firearm. “Some novices have never handled a firearm, so it is especially important that they learn these steps,” says Coon-Come.
Instructors also teach their pupils how to hold their firearm safely, using one of the different carries: the cradle, sight, shoulder, sling, elbow, and two-hand (or ready) carries. “The two-hand or ready carry is the safest one, but your choice depends on several things, such as how many people are in your hunting group and where you are placed with them,” Coon-Come explains. “You have to determine beforehand where you are going to walk in your group. If you are in the middle, you would most likely use the side carry, where the muzzle is pointed down. If there is a left-handed shooter in the group, he stays on the left-hand side so he can use the two-hand carry.” Because your carry also depends on the environment, instructors explain how to cross streams and other obstacles while keeping a safe, secure grip on your firearm.
The point, Coon-Come stresses, is to reduce the chances of people injuring themselves or others while using firearms. “Everyone needs to remember what I always tell my students,” he says. “Firearms safety is each individual’s responsibility, both legally and socially.”
The CTA is offering the two-day Canadian Firearms Safety Course in Wemindji on April 19-20, as well as the Introduction to Hunting with Firearms course for Cree hunters who want to hunt outside Eeyou Istchee. A course in Chisasibi will be offered later in the spring or summer.