It’s Thursday, April 8, and a Canadian river is now a legal person.

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The Magpie River — or Muteshekau Shipu in the Innu language — in the Canadian province of Quebec has been recognized by the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality as a legal person. This designation, which will help protect the river from environmental damage by granting it legal rights similar to those of a person or corporation, is the first instance of a natural entity being granted legal personhood in Canada. 

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The move is part of an international trend. The idea of granting legal personhood to a natural entity, like a river, lake, or mountain, was first set forth in a 1972 paper by legal scholar Christopher D. Stone. Rivers that have received legal status since then include the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which was granted legal personhood in 2017 in a settlement between the government and the Maori people, and the Klamath River in California. 

The personhood designation reflects the idea held by many Indigenous cultures around the world, including Innu culture, that nature and society are interconnected. “The Creator put us on this piece of territory called Nitassinan, which encompasses all these rivers, all these mountains, all these trees,” Jean-Charles Pietacho, chief of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, told Al Jazeera. “The Innu people always believed that you had to protect the earth. It’s water — it’s life.”

Alexandria Herr

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