Rights for Rivers – Quebec River Granted Rights and Legal Personhood by Indigenous Community and Local Municipality

March 18, 2021 /


Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec (Muteshekau-shipu in the Innu language) was granted legal personhood by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality (“Minganie RCM”).  The idea of granting legal personhood to environmental resources in Canada could be a valuable tool for Indigenous communities to control environmental protection within their traditional territories.

Rights for the Magpie River

The Magpie River is located in the traditional territory of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and is an important part of the community’s traditional land-based practices and history.[1]  The river is also valued by environmentalists for its biodiversity and by others as a renowned white water paddling destination.[2]  However, the river has faced ongoing pressures from hydroelectricity development.  Given the importance of the river, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, Minganie RCM, and environmental groups sought proactive options to protect the river from further development.

The resolutions adopted by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and Minganie RCM grant the Magpie River nine rights: [3]

+ The right to flow;
+ The right to respect for its cycles;
+ The right for its natural evolution to be protected and preserved;
+ The right to maintain its natural biodiversity;
+ The right to fulfil its essential functions within its ecosystem;
+ The right to maintain its integrity;
+ The right to be safe from pollution;
+ The right to regenerate and be restored; and
+ The right to sue.

These rights are consistent with Innu Council of Ekuanitshit laws and customs.  The resolutions also assign potential legal guardians to ensure these rights are enforced.[4]

The idea of legal personhood grapples with the question of who or what has legal rights.  Although the idea of granting legal personhood to the environment may seem novel, legal personhood has been applied to many other non-human entities.  For instance, corporations have long been recognized as legal persons in Canada.

Various legal thinkers have argued that legal personhood should extend to the environment.  In the seminal essay from 1972, “Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”, Christopher D. Stone argued for legal personhood as a means of environmental protection.[5]  Stone argued that “natural objects” should have legal rights and that “guardians” could act on their behalf to seek redress for violations of those rights.

Although the Magpie River is the first example of environmental legal personhood in Canada, it is part of a growing trend around the world.  For instance, in New Zealand, the Whanganui River was granted legal personhood in 2017 by an Act of the New Zealand Parliament.[6]  The Whanganui River is sacred to the Whanganui Iwi Māori people who rely on the river and consider it unceded to the Crown.[7]  The Act was intended to recognize the Whanganui Iwi’s unique ancestral relationship with the river and customary rights and responsibilities to the river.[8]  The Act established that appointed guardians have an obligation to act and speak on behalf of the river.  These appointed guardians can also judicially enforce the rights of the Whanganui River.[9]

From the perspective of Indigenous communities, environmental legal personhood may be a valuable tool for protecting Indigenous rights and asserting jurisdiction.

First, the idea of legal personhood may align with Indigenous legal orders and worldviews on the environment.  Rather than treating the environment as inert property as the Canadian legal system currently does, legal personhood can recognize that other species or non-living elements of the environment have rights that humans have responsibilities to uphold.  In some cases, this idea of reciprocal rights and responsibilities may be more consistent with Indigenous worldviews.  For instance, the rights granted to the Magpie River are informed by and consistent with Innu Council of Ekuanitshit laws and customs.[10]  As well, in New Zealand, the legal framework for protecting the Whanganui River is rooted in from the “intrinsic spiritual values” of the Māori worldview.[11]  Legal personhood may provide an avenue for enforcing these Indigenous worldviews within the Canadian legal framework.

Additionally, legal personhood may be a tool for Indigenous communities to assert jurisdiction over environmental regulation and take proactive measures to protect the environment within their traditional territories, particularly where existing Canadian regulation falls short.  Because of this, legal personhood could be one way for Indigenous communities to enact reconciliation on their own terms and with consideration for their own laws and values.

It is important to note that the idea of legal personhood for the environment has not yet been tested in Canadian courts.  The practical implications of granting of rights to the Magpie River and the ability of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and Minganie RCM to curb development on the river remain to be seen.  Nevertheless, this is an important step in Indigenous-led environmental stewardship in Canada, and supports the idea that environmental legal personhood can be adopted by other Indigenous communities throughout Canada.

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