Quebec river is granted legal personhood

Published: March 22, 2021

Magpie River Photo Courtesy of the Muteshekau-Shipu Alliance/Facebook

In a first for Canada, Quebec’s Magpie River has been granted legal personhood by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the local Minganie Regional County Municipality (RCM).

The river, known as Muteshekau-shipu in the Innu language, stretches 300 km through Quebec’s Côte-Nord region and is famous for its white-water rapids. It is also a culturally significant location to the Innu people, but has long been at risk of being disrupted by Hydro-Quebec, due to the waterway’s hydroelectric potential.

The river has not been declared a protected area by the province, leaving it open to development. But by granting the river legal personhood, the two groups are attempting to protect its rights.

The Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the RCM partnered with the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature (IORN) to adopt two parallel resolutions. The resolutions grant the river nine rights, including the right to flow, to be safe from pollution, to maintain its biodiversity, and, theoretically, to sue the government.

The resolutions also allow for potential legal guardians to take responsibility for ensuring the river’s rights are respected.

In a press release, Alain Branchaud, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Quebec Chapter (CPAWS Quebec), which has also been involved in the protection of the river, said: “This is a way for us to take matters into our own hands and stop waiting for the Quebec government to protect this unique river. After a decade of our message falling on deaf ears in government, the Magpie River is now protected as a legal person.”

While granting legal personhood to an element of the natural world is new in Canada, other countries adopted the concept years ago. In 2014, New Zealand granted legal rights of recognition to Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River. In India, the country’s constitution imposes a duty on all citizens to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, rivers, and wildlife, and to have compassion for all living creatures.

“The recognition of the rights of Nature is a growing global movement, and Canada is joining it today with this first case,” said Yenny Vega Cardenas, president of the IORN, in a press release. “The Magpie River represented a perfect test case, thanks to the consensus for its protection from the actors involved and its international reputation.”

The idea of a river representing itself in court may sound absurd, but Sean Nixon, a lawyer with the non-profit environmental law organization Ecojustice Canada, argues that it is no different than a corporation.

“Corporations are artificial legal constructs designed to protect investors from potential liabilities for a company’s activities. And yet they are ‘persons’ in the eyes of the law. We have granted them the right to participate in their own name in court cases, administrative proceedings, and legislative hearings, where humans—usually lawyers or executives—speak on their behalf,” he writes.

While there is no guarantee from the province that the river will be protected from development, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the RCM are confident that their resolutions, which rest on multiple legal bases in national and international law, will help protect the river.

“The people closest to the river will be those watching over it from now on,” said Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, in a press release. “The Innu of Ekuanitshit have always been the protectors of the Nitassinan [ancestral territory] and will continue to be so through the recognition of the rights of the Muteshekau-shipu river.”

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