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In a first for Canadians, a river in Côte-Nord, Que., has been granted legal personhood by the local municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit.
The Magpie River, (Muteshekau-shipu in the Innu Coet) is an internationally renowned whitewater rafting site, winding nearly 300 kilometres before emptying into the St. Lawrence. The river has one hydroelectric dam managed by Hydro-Québec, and environmental groups have long sought a permanent solution to protect the river from further disruption.
It is unclear how this will affect attempts to build developments on the river, including dams, moving forward, as legal personhood for nature doesn’t exist in Canadian law and could be challenged in court. Minganie, Innu council and several environmental groups — collectively called the Alliance — hope international precedents set in New Zealand, Ecuador and several other countries will help pressure the Quebec government to formally protect the river.
“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,” explained Alain Branchaud, executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Quebec chapter. “After a decade of our message falling on deaf ears in government, the Magpie River is now protected as a legal person.”
In accordance with Innu customs and practices, the Alliance has granted the river nine rights: 1) the right to flow; 2) the right to respect for its cycles; 3) the right for its natural evolution to be protected and preserved; 4) the right to maintain its natural biodiversity; 5) the right to fulfil its essential functions within its ecosystem; 6) the right to maintain its integrity; 7) the right to be safe from pollution; 8) the right to regenerate and be restored; and perhaps most importantly, 9) the right to sue.
“This is a paradigm shift,” said Yenny Vega Cárdenas, president of the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature, which drafted the resolutions in collaboration with the Alliance. “In environmental law, as it is now, nature is just an object that humans can exploit at their pleasure. Now we’re recognizing that the river has its own rights; that we’re part of the same ecosystem.”
This move follows a larger trend in environmental movements around the world, most notably in Ecuador and New Zealand. In 2011, a provincial court in Ecuador became the first to legally recognize the rights of nature when they ruled in favour of the Vilcabamba River against damaging road construction. In 2017, the Whanganui River on New Zealand’s North Island was the first in the world to be granted legal personhood.
Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, said he was partially inspired after visiting the Whanganui River, which is sacred to New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori. Hearing of their decades-long fight to have the river legally recognized by the New Zealand government gave him hope that Canadians might do the same.
“We are not the owners of the river,” Piétacho said. “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.”
Despite a 2017 promise from Hydro-Québec that it would not construct any more dams on the river, government emails shared with Canada’s National Observer revealed there remained internal opposition to protecting the river given its potential for future energy projects.
When asked pointedly if granting legal personhood to the river would protect it against further destruction by Hydro-Québec, Luc Noël, prefect of Minganie, said with certainty, “There will be no more Hydro-Québec dams on the Magpie River.”
The announcement comes just two months after Quebec inched past its 2020 goal of providing environmental protections for 17 per cent of its natural territory, a number set by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2015.
“The recognition of the rights of nature is a growing global movement, and Canada is joining it today with this first case,” said Vega Cárdenas. Whether this first case will be a success or failure for Canadians remains to be seen.