We are not familiar enough with Quebec and Canada to guess where the opposition will arise, but rest assured somewhere this will be attacked by those who see potential money lost by not being allowed to exploit the river.
In Florida in Orange County the response was immediate by agriculture, developers and Tallahassee, all terrified that a moneymaking opportunity was being taken from them. We’ve yet to see how this will play out. The concept is very difficult for those in power to understand.
Our gratitude and admiration go to the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality for their courage and wisdom, two qualities our leaders in Florida lack and desperately need.
Inside the growing movement to make rivers legally qualify as people
The Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) runs nearly 300 kilometers 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.
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-practiced 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.