This Canadian River Just Became a Legal Person

A landmark for Canada, and part of a growing trend

Magpie River dam
A dam on the Magpie River.
Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0

What does it mean to be a person? That’s a question that’s haunted philosophers and science fiction authors alike across the years, and one that can have very different answers depending on who you ask and in what context you ask it. When it comes to personhood in the legal sense, for instance, the definition is a bit broader than you might expect.

Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute defines a legal person as “a human or non-human entity that is treated as a person for limited legal purposes.” A recent article in The New Yorker explored the growing movement to give certain animals legal personhood, and both corporations and bodies of water have also been considered people from a legal perspective.

The latest example of a non-human person attaining legal personhood comes from Canada, where the Magpie River (also known as Mutuhekau Shipu) recently attained that status. A report in National Geographic has more details about the river’s change in status — the first example of this happening to a Canadian body of water — and what it could lead to in the future.

The Innu First Nation was intricately involved with getting the river legal personhood — something that National Geographic notes is part of a global movement of Indigenous groups working to preserve the natural landscape. In the case of this particular river, both the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality were involved with deeming the river a person.

Personhood for the river means that it can have a role in lawsuits, along with having formal recognition of several other rights. This, in turn, can help address issues of pollution and development along the river. The article notes that this remains a growing movement, but it’s one that seems to be resonating with more and more groups around the world.

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