The Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) runs nearly 300 kilometres in Québec’s Côte-Nord region. The river is culturally significant for the Innu and it is popular with white water paddlers and rafters.
Despite efforts to protect the river, Muteshekau Shipu continues to be threatened by potential new hydroelectric dam development. But, in February, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality declared the Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) a legal person, a move that may provide greater certainty for this majestic river’s future.
While a first in Canada, granting legal personhood to natural entities is part of a global movement to recognize the rights of nature in law. Indigenous communities around the world are leading the way in upholding the rights of sacred and ancestral rivers, forests and mountains. Recognizing the rights of nature is an opportunity to elevate the power of Indigenous Peoples’ laws and worldviews to benefit all peoples.
Extractive values — the belief that natural entities are resources that can be used for human benefit with little regard for their well-being and longevity — are deeply embedded in Canada’s legal and economic systems.
These values influence the ideologies at the root of our biodiversity and climate crises. These ideologies justify the transformation of rivers, forests and the atmosphere into commodities and private property at our own peril. Recognizing natural entities as legal persons and enshrining their rights in law is a promising legal innovation.
Rights of nature
On Feb. 23, the Alliance for the Protection of the Magpie River/Muteshekau Shipu recognized nine rights of the river. These include the rights to evolve naturally and be protected, to be free of pollution and to sue.
The members of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, part of the alliance, will now be the river’s guardians. This means that those with long-standing relationships to Muteshekau Shipu will be formally entrusted with the river’s care for future generations.
“Designating the river as a legal person was the clearest message we could send,” Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit told us in an interview. “There will never be dams in this river. The river protects herself, we protect the river, we’re all protected. I think the message is very clear.”
Galvanized by widespread environmental degradation and rising Indigenous rights movements, Indigenous communities around the world are leading the way in upholding the rights of sacred and ancestral rivers. This includes Māori tribal relationships with the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand, the role of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in the Atrato River in Colombia, and the Yurok Tribal Council’s granting legal rights of personhood to the Klamath River through an ordinance in the United States.
The idea that nature is a sentient being isn’t new to Indigenous and other traditional peoples. “The vision of the Innu is that Nature is living. Everything is alive,” said Chief Piétacho.
Indigenous laws: Relationships and responsibilities
Recognizing the rights of nature are modern expressions of long-practised Indigenous laws. Indigenous laws are as diverse as Indigenous cultures yet share an understanding that humans are an integral part of the natural world. These laws emphasize respect for all beings and responsibilities to care for lands and waters. Trees, mountains and plants are relatives, not commodities that can be privately owned and exploited.
The rights-of-nature movement may seem radical to some people. It challenges Eurocentric values such as human dominance over the natural world, which is considered largely inanimate. The conservation movement itself is founded on a worldview that sees “wilderness” as something separate to be protected from humans. The “fortress” conservation movement is ideologically non-commensurate with Indigenous ways of thinking about being a part of nature. This belief was used to justify the forced relocation of many Indigenous Peoples from their territories to establish parks and protected areas.
Rights understood through a western, liberal and individualistic lens overlook collective responsibilities to the natural world. “I sincerely think Québec and Canada missed their responsibility; they aren’t protecting the river from development,” said Chief Piétacho.
Bridging western and Indigenous legal systems through a rights-of-nature approach is one tool for encouraging a kincentric view of the world, which sees humans as “part of an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins.”
Indigenous laws mirror and reinforce relational worldviews that view living entities as relatives, not resources. This in turn shapes social conduct that emphasizes respect and responsibility to the natural world. Innovative governance arrangements are one means through which distinct worldviews and associated laws can be woven together.
Innovative governance models
Rivers speak but since western laws and institutions are not designed to listen, people must act as intermediaries voicing perspectives on their behalf. Indigenous laws are well positioned to conceptualize the decision-making structures needed to breathe life into legal personhood.
In 2014, Tūhoe iwi (Māori) and the New Zealand government granted legal personhood to Te Urewera, an ancestral forest and former national park. They created a board responsible for making decisions in the best interests of Te Urewera. Tūhoe, as children of Tu Urewera, give expression to her through the board.
In Northern Canada, Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation established Thaidene Nëné as an Indigenous Protected Area under Dene law. It is also protected as a park and conservation area under Canadian and territorial (Northwest Territories) legislation. The management board, Thaidene Nëné Xá Dá Yáłtı, is composed of members of Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, the Government of Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories. Once appointed, members no longer represent their organizations, they speak for Thaidene Nëné.
Examples like Thaidene Nëné are the exception and not the norm in Canada, although this may be changing. There is a national mandate to support Indigenous-led conservation initiatives and advance reconciliation. This support combined with Indigenous leadership and accompanying legal innovations present new opportunities for caring for the land and waters.
Many similar Indigenous-led initiatives are currently underway, supported by programs including the Bioneers Indigeneity Program, RIVER (Revitalizing Indigenous Values for Earth’s Regeneration), the Conservation through Reconciliation partnership, RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air and Water) and the Global Network for the Rights of Nature.
The Muteshekau Shipu river declaration — and the legal guardianship role for Innu — is an example governments can learn from. “If the government wants to effectively protect Nature, they should consider this option so protected areas would be protected along with our rights,” said Chief Piétacho.
To create just and liveable futures for all our relatives (human and otherwise), Canadian laws and policies need further innovation. Vesting legal personhood in natural entities is a promising intervention when Indigenous Peoples represent these entities. It elevates the standing of nature for all peoples and respects the laws of Indigenous Peoples.
Georgia Lloyd-Smith, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, co-authored this article. The authors are grateful to Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho for the interview.
Justine Townsend, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics, University of Guelph; Alexis Bunten, Co-Director, Bioneers Indigeneity Program and Consultant; Catherine Iorns, Professor of Law, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington, and Lindsay Borrows, PhD Candidate in Law, University of Alberta