- Earth Day
This Canadian river is now legally a person. It’s not the only one.
From the Amazon to the Klamath, granting rivers legal rights is part of Indigenous-led efforts to protect them.
With its thunderous rapids carving through a wild boreal forest in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region, the Magpie River is well known to white water rafters from around the globe. What these travelers may not know is that the Magpie recently became the first river in Canada to be granted legal personhood.
The 120-mile-long waterway is sacred to the Innu First Nation, who call it Mutuhekau Shipu. They’ve depended on it as a major highway, food source, and natural pharmacy for centuries. But in recent years, the river has been threatened by hydroelectric dam development, the negative environmental and social effects of which often outweigh any renewable energy benefits.
To protect the natural landmark, the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality declared the Mutuhekau Shipu a legal person in 2021. Now the river has nine rights, among them the right to flow, maintain biodiversity, be free from pollution, and to sue.
While this is a first in Canada, it’s part of a global, Indigenous-led campaign echoing the rights of nature movement, which aims to provide concrete protections for the natural landscape. In recent years, many rivers—from New Zealand’s Whanganui to the United States’ Klamath River—have been given personhood. In 2018, Colombia’s Supreme Court granted the Amazon—the world’s largest river—legal rights.
While rivers like the Magpie are already on rafters’ radar, the growth of ecotourism in these areas may be key in helping to protect many others. Developing a non-extractive economy not only gets more people involved in river conservation, it also offers a way for Indigenous communities to educate travelers on the importance of protecting these vital waterways.
Granting rivers legal personhood represents a seismic shift from the bedrock belief in Western society that humans are at the apex of the natural world. But for many Indigenous people, the concept of nature as a sentient equal to humans is nothing new. In Maori culture, for example, ancestors, or tupuna, are embodied in the landscape.
“I see the river and the trees as ancestors,” says Uapukun Mestokosho, a member of the Mutehekau Shipu Alliance, the committee that advocated for the river’s legal rights. “They’ve been here long before we have and deserve the right to live.”
While the personhood movement reconceptualizes the relationship between rivers and people, granting non-human entities personhood is an existing Western concept applied to corporations that can bridge Western and Indigenous legal systems. “In the case of the Magpie River, Indigenous law is showing up in a language that Canadian law can understand,” says Lindsay Borrows, a law professor at Queen’s University in Ontario.
How these personhood declarations translate into legislation varies widely, from an overarching recognition in the case of the Whanganui River to a list of specific rights in the Magpie and Klamath. Other legislation recognizes natural entities as rights holders but stops short of personhood.
(Follow the journey of how New Zealand’s Whanganui River became a legal person.)
That’s the case with Los Cedros Biological Reserve in Ecuador, where a recent landmark ruling upheld the reserve’s constitutional rights against mining. Similarly, in central Florida, Lake Mary Jane guardians recently filed a case in state court to uphold the lake’s rights against encroachment—a first in America.
Personhood is a new legal tool, so it remains to be challenged in court. Yet part of its power lies in the ability to keep conflicts outside the courtroom. Instead, it relies on appointed guardians advocating on behalf of the river or forest. It also represents Indigenous law drawing a line in the sand.
“We want to send a message that we are a government for our nation,” says Shanice Mollen-Picard, a member of the Mutehekau Shipu Alliance. “We live in this territory, and we know how to protect it best.”
How tourism can play a role
Personhood raises the profile of natural landmarks by drawing attention to their beauty and cultural significance. In doing so, it builds a strong case for fostering a local economy aligned with conservationist values.
In Quebec’s Côte-Nord region, developing tourism depends on protecting the Magpie River and neighboring Anticosti Island, a provincial park seeking UNESCO World Heritage status. “I don’t think Hydro-Quebec will have much success building another dam on the Magpie once [the river’s] better known,” says Danny Peled, owner of Boreal River Adventures.
Unlike the “boom-and-bust” nature of industrial projects like dam development, ecotourism could create a lasting, sustainable economy in the area. “Ecotourism is taking the land and viewing it through the lens of protection rather than extraction,” says Keith Henry, president of the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada. “It’s shifting the experience there so the world can come and visit.”
(Tearing out these dams will open rivers for conservation—and save lives.)
Through tourism, Indigenous communities can educate travelers about the environmental threats in their territories. “Native voices have really gained prominence when it comes to issues like resource and land management,” says Josh Norris, manager of Redwood Yurok Canoe Tours in Northern California. “Travelers are now seeking that out.”
Norris’ paddling trips offer an intimate understanding of the Klamath River, where visitors board a traditional dugout canoe and float through redwood forests. Along the way, a Yurok guide explains the river’s historical and cultural significance in Yurok culture, as well as the threats that led to its personhood status.
Similarly, a Maori-led canoeing trip on the jade waters of the Whanganui is an up-close journey through Indigenous culture and history—a crucial way to build public support for the river’s continued protection.
“Law is only as powerful as people understand it,” says Borrows. “Until then it hasn’t been written on people’s hearts; it’s only been written on paper. When we go into other people’s territories to enjoy the natural beauty there, I hope we can find ways to discover their laws and live and breathe them so that we’re good visitors.”
(Here’s how Indigenous knowledge is helping to protect Canada’s grizzlies.)
A platform for reconciliation
Deeper understanding between colonial settlers and Indigenous communities is at the root of reconciliation. While nascent Indigenous tourism in North America and elsewhere often excluded or exploited these groups, river guiding by First Nations in areas they’ve worked to protect allows them to shape the narrative.
On Boreal River Adventures’ multiday rafting trip, Innu guides navigate the Magpie’s frothing rapids and swirling eddies, taking travelers through arctic tundra and shadowy forest. “You get to know everybody well over a week, so it’s a way for people to ask questions and become connected with an Indigenous person in an in-depth way,” says Peled.
Rafting on the Magpie empowers the Innu First Nation to reconnect with their ancestral lands, too. An all-women’s Boreal River Adventures rafting trip in 2013 ignited the community’s passion to protect the river. “That’s the moment that really pushed us to advocate for its protection,” says Mestokosho. “We saw our ancestors’ history, the wildlife, the sun, the power of the river, and that we had to protect it.”
Now, the Innu community hopes to develop their own tourism ventures. Although it’s still in early stages, part of the responsibilities of the appointed river guardians will be sharing traditional knowledge on guided rafting, hiking, and fishing excursions and traditional medicine walks. Community members hope that such activities will cultivate a shared understanding of the importance of protecting these wild rivers.
“We need to see that as humans we are not above the water or the animals. We are part of a whole,” says Mestokosho. “When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves, too.”