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This pristine Canadian river has legal personhood, a new approach to conserving nature

February 1, 2024

New documentary examines how a Quebec river became a person under the law and how that protects it from harm

A wide image of river rapids flowing out into a wide section of river, surrounded by boreal forest.
The Magpie River tumbles through nearly 300 kilometres of sequential white water rapids toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (Q Films)

CBC Indigenous: A swoosh of raven wings echo in the crisp air. Beaver claws scratch against the rocks on the shoreline. The ice blockade upriver groans and creaks against the rising waters. It’s springtime at the Magpie River. 

This stretch of water is known as the Muteshekau-shipu by the Innu, the first peoples whose traditional lands surround it. The river is a vital part of their cultural identity.

“Our grandmothers went down the river; they went down the rapids,” Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innu of Ekuanitshit, says in French in the new film I Am the Magpie River, a documentary from The Nature of Things. “The Magpie is one of the only rivers that is supposed to stay as it is.”

In 2021, this river was granted legal personhood to protect its pristine waters. The documentary considers the impact of this decision and how it could ensure the Magpie’s mighty waters continue to flow freely for the people and wildlife that depend on them. 

Threats to Canada’s freshwater rivers

The headwaters of the Magpie River sit between Labrador and Quebec. Ice turns to water, which tumbles down nearly 300 kilometres across the rocky landscape, through sequential white water rapids toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

Rivers with the unimpeded breadth and expanse of the Magpie are no longer a common sight in Canada or around the world. According to the documentary, less than a third of the planet’s large rivers remain free-flowing from source to sea. Due to their strength, these bodies of water hold the potential for hydro power. 

While there has been a small dam on the Magpie since the 1950s, located just before it empties into the St. Lawrence, power companies like Hydro-Québec have long wanted to dam the Magpie further to harness its power. In recent years, the spring melt has seen the river rise by more than 30 metres in places, pushing 950 cubic metres of water per second through certain points.

But using the Magpie for energy production would transform the landscape — requiring hundreds of kilometres of roads, dikes and hydro corridors — and threaten the existence of many organisms that live throughout the far reaches of the river.

“Freshwaters are actually home to the world’s greatest amount of biodiversity,” says Dalal Hanna, a Canadian freshwater and landscape ecologist, in the film.

And according to the documentary, these freshwater ecosystems are quickly becoming some of the most endangered on the planet, resulting in their animal populations shrinking at a rate twice as fast as those in the sea or on land.

A kayaker stands on a rocky outcrop looking at a very large section of rapids on the Magpie River.
In 2010, the Magpie river was named one of the top 10 whitewater kayaking rivers in the world by National Geographic. (Q Films)

Saving the Magpie

For locals and advocates, the threat to the Magpie is reminiscent of what happened to another Quebec river system. 

The Romaine River is similarly entwined in Innu culture and history, running parallel to a highway of portage trails leading up from the St. Lawrence River. In 2009, it was dammed by Hydro-Québec to create four hydroelectric power stations. Intermittent flooding dramatically changes the landscape around the dams, wreaking havoc on animal habitat and disrupting natural corridors that animals use to move through their territory.

Chief Piétacho sits near one of the power stations in the film: on one side is a vast expanse of flooded land, and on the other, an exposed riverbed — its powerful waters reduced to a trickle.  “The Romaine woke us up,” Mathieu Bourdon, a tour guide who has led countless rafting trips down the Magpie for Innu youth, says in French in the film. “It was like a bulldozer. We weren’t ready to act.”

An older man with short, grey hair and glasses stands with exposed rock behind him, plus a bridge in the background.
Chief Piétacho stands on the exposed riverbed near a Hydro-Québec power station on the Romaine River. (Q Films)

In 2018, Bourdon and Chief Piétacho initiated a strategic alliance that brought together local Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments as well as environmental groups to form the Muteshekau-shipu Alliance. United, they approached Yenny Vega Cárdenas, president of the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature, to take on the case of protecting the Magpie River.

Cárdenas provided the solution of granting the river legal personhood, a move which had been used to protect ecosystems in Ecuador, New Zealand, Spain and Colombia.

“Legal personhood means, in law … that we cannot destroy [the ecosystem]. That it’s not an object to exploit, but a person to protect,” Cárdenas says in the documentary. This approach to conservation falls under the legal framework of the rights of nature, which recognizes that natural phenomena, like rivers and forests, have the intrinsic right to exist outside of their relationship to humans.

The preservation of natural systems like the Magpie also protects the human right to water, Cárdenas told the CBC. “If we destroy nature, we are undermining our individual and collective capacity to prosper and live in relationship with our environment … when we affect the environment, we affect ourselves.”

In 2021, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the regional municipal council of Minganie passed sister resolutions, granting the Magpie River the landmark right of legal personhood — a title which bestowed nine rights upon the Magpie River:

  • The right to live, to exist and to flow.
  • The right to the respect for its natural cycles.
  • The right to evolve naturally, to be protected and preserved.
  • The right to maintain its natural biodiversity.
  • The right to perform its essential functions within its ecosystem.
  • The right to maintain its integrity.
  • The right to be free from pollution.
  • The right to regenerate and be restored.
  • The right to sue.

Navigating the legal system

Although the title of legal personhood is a unique way of approaching conservation, it can draw questions about how the Magpie will manage the intricacies of the legal system — especially since it can now theoretically sue and be sued.

In the case of damage, due to flooding for instance, Cárdenas explains that the Magpie would likely not be found liable. “The river doesn’t commit intentional damage, therefore it cannot be sued,” she said, pointing out that those who build in known flood zones are also aware of the risks.

According to the sister resolutions, “guardians” will be appointed by the Innu council of Ekuanitshit and the regional municipal council of Minganie to advocate for the river and represent it in court. The guardians will also have to consult both councils when performing their duties to protect the Magpie.

The guardianship model is based on the idea that the representatives of the natural system must look after its best interests, Cárdenas said. “Like parents to a child, they must look out for the best interests of the child.”

It remains to be seen how the courts will interpret the laws of legal personhood, but advocates are hopeful that this new approach to conservation will help protect ecosystems across the country and around the world. 


Elizabeth Benner, Elizabeth is a writer with a Masters in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University and a BSc. from the University of Toronto. Elizabeth has covered episodes of The Nature of Things about conservation, global warming and the natural world.