Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on March 5, 2021 (updated: April 14, 2021)

A Quebec river now has legal personhood – what that means for granting nature rights

Sean NixonLawyer
Muteshekau-shipu river (Magpie River) in Quebec
Photo by Boreal River/CPAWS

Famous for its white-water rapids, the Muteshekau-shipu river (also known as the Magpie River) stretches 300 kilometres through Quebec.

The river is of profound cultural importance to the Innu of Ekuanitshit. And now, in a Canadian first, this waterway has been granted legal personhood.

In February, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality (RCM) both adopted resolutions granting legal personhood to the Muteshekau-shipu river.

The resolutions grant the river nine rights, including the right to flow, to maintain its biodiversity, to be safe from pollution, and to sue. The resolutions also allow for the creation of legal guardians, people who would be responsible for ensuring the river’s rights are respected. 

This new status could help protect the Muteshekau-shipu river from future attempts to dam it. According to a press release from the Muteshekau-shipu Alliance, previous efforts to protect the landmark were “thwarted for years” by Hydro-Quebec, which has long eyed the river’s potential for generating hydroelectric power.

On a broader scale, granting a river personhood is a historic and ground-breaking move that could have implications for how we protect nature across Canada.

Here’s a closer look at how expanding the rights of nature could revolutionize how we protect Canada’s species, ecosystems, and biodiversity.

White water rapids on the Muteshekau-shipu river (Magpie River) in Quebec
Photo by Charles Kavanagh/CPAWS

The rights of nature: Introducing a new actor into environmental dramas

Up until now, environmental dramas in Canada have usually played out with humans and corporations as their sole characters.  When it comes to legal standing, wildlife and the other non-human elements of the natural world have been absent from the cast. 

Attend an environmental assessment hearing for a proposed mine, a court case about a marine oil spill, or a Parliamentary hearing about a proposed endangered species law and you likely find two camps of opposing human and corporate (or non-profit) players: one side favouring unhindered development, and one side urging caution and conservation. 

The resulting drama then plays out as a quarrel among competing human interests. The natural world is discussed and valued only to the extent that it is of immediate use to human beings. 

As a result, when an oil company’s powerful economic interest in accessing petroleum deposits collides with the value of the area to birdwatchers, hikers, or hunters, the former usually wins.

Enter “rights of nature”

But what if non-human beings and other elements of the natural world, such as the Muteshekau-shipu river, had rights, including the right to participate in environmental disputes to make direct arguments about their own needs?

The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it may appear at first.

We already allow non-human entities – namely corporations – to participate in legal disputes as full players.  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.

Around the world, many countries already recognize the rights of nature in law.

New Zealand granted legal recognition of the rights of Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River in 2014. Countries such as India, Ecuador, and others recognize rights and legal protections for nature in their constitutions.

The Whanganui River in New Zealand, by Jason Pratt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Defining rights of nature

Granting legal personhood to the Muteshekau-shipu river may be the first step in revolutionizing how we protect nature in Canada.

As David Boyd, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, writes in his book The Rights of Nature, humans can grant rights to non-human species, ecosystems, or elements of the natural environment, including the right to participate in court or other proceedings that affect them, and the right to a continued existence unthreatened by human activities.

Of course, a river can’t appear in a court room. So who would speak on its behalf?  Legal academics and judges have suggested the court appoint guardians for elements of the natural environment to represent them in their legal affairs.  Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court of the United States, in his dissenting opinion in the 1972 case Sierra Club v Morton, suggested that the legitimate spokespeople for the natural world are those who have meaningful relations to the relevant beings or natural features:

"The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it. Those people who have a meaningful relation to that body of water – whether it be a fisherman, a canoeist, a zoologist, or a logger – must be able to speak for the values which the river represents, and which are threatened with destruction."

The resolutions granting personhood to the Muteshekau-shipu river take a similar approach. According to CBC, one resolution says, “the river can be represented by ‘guardians’ … with ‘the duty to act on behalf of the rights and interests of the river and ensure the protection of its fundamental rights.’”

Photo by Boreal River/CPAWS

A better way

Environmental organizations, societies of naturalists, and hunting or fishing groups already participate in environmental proceedings and make indirect arguments about impacts on the natural world.  But it’s often an awkward fit, in which risks to the non-human world are seen primarily through the lens of competing human interests. 

This bias in our current system creates an imbalance in the world. Anything without obvious short-term value to humans is at risk of disappearing.  We lose old-growth forests, which have an easily-measurable short-term value as wood and paper products, but difficult-to-quantify values if left in their natural state.  We lose multitudes of plant and animal species, many of whom have critical ecological roles that we won’t understand until we watch natural systems unravel after their departure. 

Granting rights to nature offers a way to begin rebalancing.  Regardless of the present value humans assign to a species or natural area, those entities have value to themselves, to the web of other beings they support and, no doubt, to future generations of humans.  Granting nature rights would recognize our profound dependence on nature, help us create durable societies and economies that co-exist with a healthy natural world, and give nature a voice to speak directly about its own needs. 

The twin climate and extinction crises are the clearest possible signs the planet’s natural systems are drastically out of balance.

Granting rights to nature – starting, hopefully, with the Muteshekau-shipu river in Quebec – offers a bold new way to even out the scales.

This blog was written with contributions from Emily Chan, of Ecojustice’s communications team.

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