Quebec's Magpie river is granted personhood

Recognition is a salvo in pressuring Quebec government to protect the river

Quebec's Magpie river is granted personhood
“As a lobbying manoeuvre to start a dialogue, … it's a very worthwhile endeavour,” says Paul Manning.

A river in Quebec was the first in Canada to be recognized as a legal person last month, though legally the recognition will likely be a tool to pressure the Quebec government to formally protect the river.

In February the regional county municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit adopted separate resolutions granting nine legal rights to the Magpie river in Quebec's Côte-Nord region, including the right to flow, to maintain its biodiversity, and to take legal action.

The river has one hydroelectric dam, managed by Hydro-Québec, and environmental groups have sought to protect the river from further disruption.

An alliance formed by Minganie, the Innu Council and environmental groups, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Quebec chapter are banking on precedents set around the world to encourage Quebec to grant environmental personhood to the Magpie.

The move toward environmental personhood has been afoot since the 1970s; internationally, New Zealand granted personhood to its Whanganui River in 2017, and India, Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia have all taken similar measures to recognize the personhood of natural resources.

The legality of granting personhood for natural resources, though, “depends on who has made declaration,” says Paul Manning of Manning Environmental Law in Toronto.

In 2014, New Zealand’s Te Urewera’s National Park was declared Te Urewera, an environmental legal entity; but that declaration was made by the federal government.

If a government, which owns a national park as Crown land, then decides to acknowledge the personhood of the national park, for example, meaning it's no longer owned by the government but is a person in its own right, “then that's a pretty authoritative view,” says Manning; “that's pretty … conclusive.”

Environmental lobby groups and residents groups granting personhood, however, is “more of a lobbying effort; you can't really afford the same authority to it,” he says. At the same time, “if you get Aboriginal groups, in any country, who are declaring the personhood of a river” or other natural resource, “then that has a more detailed and alternative history, in  Aboriginal laws and traditions, … and that brings a different authority to it.”

It’s difficult to see where this declaration for the Magpie river falls in that spectrum, he says; “clearly, it has a wide array of authoritative support and has legitimacy from that [Indigenous] point of view.”

The Innus of Ekuanitshit are a First Nation band in Quebec living mostly in the Indian reserve of Mingan on the north coast of the St. Lawrence River. A representative of the community has described the river as forming an important part of the Innu of Ekuanitshit’s traditional territory.

This First Nation, which has “worked collectively with environmental organizations and local government for the Magpie River personhood recognition, continues to have their practices and Indigenous legal orders and responsibilities to the river,” says Aimée Craft, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law – Common Law Section. “But they also have been part of this movement towards recognition of personhood in western law, or state law,” which forms a part of Craft’s research.

The alliance to protect the Magpie river, in accordance with Innu customs and practices, granted the river the following 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 finally, 9) the right to sue.

“I'm very pleased that a river and an acknowledged environmental resource is being given additional protection,” says Manning. “Whether the claim has sufficient weight behind the legal argument, I don't know; but as a … lobbying manoeuvre to start a dialogue, to get legislative or judicial or other endorsements of that protection, it's a very worthwhile endeavour.”

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