A global movement is granting rivers legal personhood. Could the Gatineau River be next?

A global movement to grant rivers legal personhood recently reached Canada, and a local Indigenous leader is asking whether the Gatineau River could be next.

Former Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg chief Gilbert Whiteduck said such legal designation would provide the Gatineau River better environmental protection, and he’s “pushing” to make it a reality.

The movement, which is largely led by Indigenous communities, environmental groups and scientists, is designed to afford rivers and other ecological features stronger legal protections by granting them rights normally reserved for people.

“I believe that, as an Algonquin Anishinābeg, we need to work together to protect the land,” Whiteduck told CBC’s All In A Day.

“A lot of people that I’ve met — older people, family members — say yes, this is something we can do together.”

Gilbert Whiteduck is clinical coordinator at the Wanaki Center, on the Kitigan Zibi reserve of the Anishinabe nation.
Gilbert Whiteduck, former Kitigan Zibi Anishinābeg chief and current clinical coordinator at the Wanaki Center, told CBC he’s pushing to get the Gatineau River legally recognized as a person. (Radio-Canada/Patrick Louiseize)

Whiteduck said the Gatineau River is a culturally and historically significant waterway for the Algonquin Anishinābeg people, and local groups may soon attempt to follow Indigenous bands from around the world by expanding the river’s protections through the emerging tools of environmental rights.

‘Part of the planet’

The global movement to grant rivers legal personhood started in New Zealand in 2014.

After decades of fighting land claims related to the Whanganui River, a Māori nation won a legal settlement in 2021 that granted the river the legal rights of “an indivisible and living whole” — in other words, a person.

This settlement was the first example of courts extending legal personhood to a non-human or inanimate object.

since then, hundreds of similar rights-based environmental protections have appeared around the world, although these efforts have been largely concentrated in New Zealand, the United States and Ecuador.

The approach first reached Canada with the protection of the Muteshekau-shipu, or Magpie River, in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region.

In February 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality passed parallel resolutions that assigned the river nine legal rights, including the right to be preserved and the right to take legal action.

As a result, the legal status means the body of water — represented by “guardians” appointed by the regional municipality and the Innu — could theoretically sue the government.

The Magpie River in Québec.
The Magpie River in Quebec, shown here in a handout photo, was the first Canadian river to be legally recognized as a person. (The Canadian Press/HO-Boreal River)

“We have been thinking that we are masters of the world,” said Yenny Vega Cárdenas, a Quebec lawyer and president of the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature. “We need to understand that we are not the master, but we are part of the planet.”

Last week, Cárdenas joined both the chief of the Ekuanitshit council and the mayor of Minganie in a presentation on legal protections for the Magpie River at the United Nations water conference in New York City.

What about the Gatineau River?

Cárdenas said she wonders whether the Magpie River may produce a “butterfly effect” in Canada — the idea that a small movement can have larger effects elsewhere.

Although Cárdenas wasn’t aware of an attempt to grant the Gatineau River legal personhood, she added she’s “happy” to hear the project may be gaining traction.

“The physical goal is to make rivers fishable, drinkable and swimmable,” he said. “It’s not very difficult, but at this time, the rivers are not able to fulfill those expectations.”

The Friends of the Gatineau River wrote in an email to CBC that it’s too early for the organization to discuss its potential involvement, but added that it would be in touch when the project was ready to launch.

Cárdenas is currently pushing for the St. Lawrence River to be recognized as a legal person by both Canada’s Parliament and Quebec’s National Assembly.

“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” she said. “We need to have a strong water law framework, and I think legal personhood is the future for water around the world.”

Whiteduck is hoping to channel the same framework a little further upstream.

“I’m pushing, and I’m trying to sow the seed that the Gatineau River would receive that,” he said. “I believe we need to protect it.”

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