Blog: Quebec’s Magpie River Is Now A Legal Person

Quebec’s Magpie River Is Now A Legal Person – A Monumental Moment in Canadian Environmental Law

Blog post by CELA Student Intern, Amanda McAleer
Photo credit: The Magpie River in Côte-Nord, Quebec, shown in a handout photo. (Photo by Boreal River)

After a decade-long effort spearheaded by the Innu of Ekuanitshit and local environmental groups, the Magpie River has officially attained legal personhood status – a first in Canadian history. The Magpie River is a natural wonder, stretching for nearly 300-kilometres across northern Quebec, and has been recognized by National Geographic as a world-renowned whitewater rafting destination. The rapids are not only a fundamental tourist attraction for the region, but they also bear deep cultural significance to the Ekuanitshit community. Running through their ancestral lands, the Magpie is a spiritual entity for the Innu that allows them to reconnect with their land and reflect on their pre-colonial ties to the region.

In February 2021, the regional municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit adopted joint resolutions to grant the river nine legal rights in accordance with Innu customary law, including the right to flow, the right to maintain its natural biodiversity, and the right to sue. The joint efforts were spawned out of the desire to protect the river from future environmental threats, particularly related to hydroelectric development, and overall to preserve the natural entity for the enjoyment of subsequent generations.

The right to take legal action is of particular importance, as it grants the Magpie, as a legal person, the capacity to defend its given rights in court should they be breached. To ensure the enforcement of these rights, the river will be represented by guardians, who will be appointed jointly by the regional municipality and the Innu people. The river guardians will serve as the voice of the river and will be vested with the legal duty to ensure that the rights and best interests of the river are upheld and respected.

Granting rights to rivers is not a new concept. The premise stems from a larger Rights of Nature movement, which seeks recognize nature as having inherent rights and obligations, similar to those attributed to human beings, and has already been adopted in numerous countries, including New Zealand, India, Ecuador, and Columbia. The Magpie River resolutions are rooted in traditional Indigenous beliefs and perspectives regarding the land, which recognize water as being a living entity deserving of the right to live and evolve, rather than being a resource for exploitation through human consumption.

Due to the newness of the resolutions, it remains unclear as to how or if they will hold up in a court of law. Canadian environmental lawyer David Boyd has suggested that the resolutions may prove successful under the constitutional protection of Indigenous rights, given the strong Indigenous leadership and support for the intuitive.

Further, given the continued threat of global warming and environmental degradation that plagues the planet, Canadian citizens are pushing now more than ever for substantial changes to the legal system and for the federal government to adopt new methods of environmental protection that will better meet the growing needs of the planet. The legislative recognition of the rights of nature in Canada would be a positive step towards the creation of more meaningful and pointed environmental protection laws, the success of which could inspire similar initiatives to take off internationally.

The Magpie River resolutions represent a major success in Canadian environmental law. While the future remains unclear for the Magpie’s legal status, the initiative identifies the strong desire of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to take environmental protection efforts into their own hands, and truly create a change for the planet. The Magpie River serves as the first Canadian precedent for the rights of nature movement, thereby opening the door for future partnerships to continue adopting the novel conception within the Canadian landscape.

For more information regarding the Rights of Nature movement, click here.
For information on Canadian Indigenous law scholars, click here.
To see a comparison of the Rights of Rivers project against other methods of environmental protection, click here.