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A new era for nature's rights

Documentary shows what the concept of legal personhood can do to protect natural phenomena.

From "I am the Magpie River"
From "I am the Magpie River"

Around the world, environmental activists are advocating for giving legal personhood to mountains, rivers and forests. A new documentary for CBC's The Nature of Things, I am the Magpie River, illustrates how this can happen in Canada. 

The Magpie (Muteshekau Shipu), located on Quebec's north shore near Havre-Saint-Pierre, spans 300 kilometres and runs through the ancestral territory of the Innu of Ekuanitshit. National Geographic named it one of the top 10 white-water rafting rivers in the world. 

After the nearby Romaine River had four hydroelectric power stations built on it, local communities and environmental groups came together to discuss ways to safeguard the majestic Magpie from a similar fate. 

In February 2021, each of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie regional municipality adopted a resolution granting legal personhood to the river. They bestowed upon it nine legal rights: the right to flow, to have its cycles respected, for its natural evolution to be protected and preserved, to maintain its natural biodiversity, to fulfil its essential functions within its ecosystem, to maintain its integrity, to be safe from pollution, to regenerate and be restored, as well as the right to sue. Guardians have been appointed to act on behalf of the river to ensure its rights are respected. 

Aimée Craft, a University of Ottawa law professor and Anishinaabe-Métis lawyer from Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba, smiles when asked how a river can be a person. 

"Legal personhood exists for things like corporations, municipalities, churches, things and entities that are not actual persons that are represented by persons," she says. "And the whole idea behind that is to have the ability to sue and be sued, to be a legal actor. Personhood is what allows you to be a legal actor in the legal system." 

She points out that in French, the concept of personnalité juridique carries the idea that legal personhood is more than just a legal vehicle and can include elements of character. Indeed, the CBC documentary spends a great deal of time showing us the river in its many moods. 

That's the work of award-winning filmmaker and storyteller Susan Fleming. Over her 35-year career, says Fleming, the theme of how humans impact nature has gradually gained prominence. "It's nice to finally report on something we're doing right," she adds, "with this new game-changing legal mechanism that could really be huge for conservation, advocates and for nature itself."

How legal personhood works

Yenny V. Cárdenas, the President of the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature in Montreal, has closely observed the uses of legal personhood as a tool for environmental protection around the world. It operates similarly to other rights. "It's law," she says with disarming simplicity. The distinction is that now we see the river as a complete entity with rights instead of commodities to own or exploit. 

It's also a reasonably new area of law. Still, over the last two decades, natural features in countries such as New Zealand, South America and India have been awarded similar rights and legal protections. In 2008, Ecuador introduced articles 71 and 72 to its constitution, enshrining that nature "has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes." Citizens can demand the country's authorities enforce those rights, including the right of nature to be restored. 

Recently in Panama, the country's Supreme Court relied on the rights of nature enshrined into law to force the closure of a mine that faced strong opposition from local populations. 

No precedent in Canada… yet

Recognizing Magpie as a legal person is a first in Canada, but it is unclear how a court will react to legal action by its guardians, says Craft. 

There is also the matter of liability. Assuming the courts recognize the Magpie as a legal person, could someone sue it were it to cause damages, say because of flooding? 

"There are no examples that I'm aware of where legal personhood has been used to pursue a river or a natural entity that has been recognized with legal personhood," says Craft. "But it's a legal possibility." 

She expresses the hope that a court tasked with adjudicating a case involving the river "would keep in mind the spirit and intent of how the legal personhood was granted." 

As for Fleming, it's promising that efforts around recognizing the rights of nature are catching on, including in Canada. 

"I think water is going to be a really huge issue going forward in the world, and Canada has an incredible percentage of the world's freshwater," she says. "I hope that this film makes people aware of how unique we are and how well positioned we are, but also how we have to be cautious in moving forward because we're not protecting it like we should."

I am the Magpie River debuts on CBC's The Nature of Things February 1, 2024