Personhood of the North Saskatchewan River
Typically we refer to the life cycle of people, animals and plants when we consider something to be alive.
But have you ever considered a river to be alive? That perhaps it has a life cycle of its own, where the environment around it and within it affects whether it maintains that life - or not.
Do you need to be alive to be a person and have rights? According to the law, an individual person is deemed to be a “legal entity”. This grants them all types of rights. For example, people can be sued, sue others, enter into contracts, or own property. Corporations are also considered a legal entity, which gives them many rights of legal persons, even though they are not alive in the usual sense.
In some countries, rivers have been granted a different kind of “personhood.” This is also similar to the “legal entity” granted to living people, along with various rights, including rights to sue those who abuse the river.
For example, in 2011 Ecuador was the first to legally recognize the rights of a river in response to concerns with the Vilcabamba River. In 2017, New Zealand was the first in the world to recognize the legal personhood of a river for the Whanganui River.
Now, Canada has also joined in the global movement of recognizing some rights for rivers. Recently, the Magpie River received recognition for its personhood by the local municipality of Minganie and the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit. This is a Canadian first.
What authority allows a river to experience “personhood” in law?
It depends which laws you mean.
In Cree legal reasoning, for example, rivers, and other bodies of water, are our relative, and therefore a living being. Because of this relationship, there are implied legal obligations and expectations. This means that we must reconsider how we interact with the North Saskatchewan River (the “River”).
According to section 25 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.” When you put this into perspective, the North Saskatchewan River has a unique spiritual relationship with several Indigenous nations including the Nehiyawak/Cree, Tsuut'ina, Niitsitapi/Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Haudenosaunee/Iroquois, Dene Suliné, Anishinaabe/Ojibway/Saulteaux, and the Inuk/Inuit.
Would you dump sewage on your grandparent? Would you toss garbage onto your cousin? It is incredibly unlikely that you answered yes to either of those questions. So, I ask you, why does society treat the River like this?
One answer might lie in the fact that there is effectively zero jurisprudence in Canada that recognizes the legal personhood of rivers. This is because Canadian law does not recognize rivers as an animate being. There is no legal recognition within Canadian (colonial) law that requires the courts to recognize the legal personhood of rivers.
In Canada's colonial society, perhaps there is a lack of understanding or respect for non-colonial mindsets. Perhaps it is easier to maintain ways of life that rely on consumption, pollution and garbage instead of becoming accountable for the ways we, as a society, treat the watersheds we depend on.
Ultimately though, all of us in Treaty 6 have a relationship with the North Saskatchewan River, whether we want to be or not. Because of this, we must learn to respect and recognize the River. One way to do that is to recognize it as a legal entity in Canadian state law.
What might it take to recognize the North Saskatchewan River as a living entity in Canadian law?
The North Saskatchewan River is 1287 kilometers long, stretches over two provinces, winds its way through multiple cities, and has already been exploited several times by hydro dams, wastewater treatment plants, and the like. In comparison, the Magpie River is under 300 kilometers, and has one hydro dam. Is the North Saskatchewan too great a River to grant personhood to at law?
Although the declaration of the Magpie River’s personhood at the municipal level is seen as a victory for those who fought for it, I wonder how long (or how soon) someone will challenge the declaration. With no legal requirement for courts to recognize the declaration, where does that leave us?
An opportunity for rivers in Canada?
In April 2021, the House of Commons heard the first reading of Bill C-28: An Act to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, to make related amendments to the Food and Drugs Act and to repeal the Perfluorooctane Sulfonate Virtual Elimination Act. Knowing Bill C-28 is in its initial stages, perhaps now is the time to push for the recognition that nature is a living and sacred entity, deserving of protection and rights.
Until next time,
Team ReconciliACTION YEG
Note: Photo: Darwin Wigget, online: Microplastics found in North Saskatchewan River, but risks unclear (thenarwhal.ca).
 Canada Business Corporations Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-44) s 15(1), online: <https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-44/page-3.html>.
 Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin, “Quebec's Magpie River becomes first in Canada to be granted legal personhood” (February 24th 2021), online: Canada's National Observer: News & Analysis <https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/02/24/news/quebecs-magpie-river-first-in-canada-granted-legal-personhood>.
 Reuben Quinn recorded in Conor McNally, “nipiy ”(2020), online: Vimeo [nipiy].
 Johanne Johnson, ᒥᔪ ᐑᒉᐦᑐᐏᐣ miyo-wîcihtowin Language Bundle (2021), online: Wahkohtowin Law and Governance Lodge at 1.
 United Nations, “The United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” (September 13, 2007), online (pdf): United Nations <https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf>.
 Edmonton and Area Land Trust, “amiskwaciy-wâskahikan (Edmonton) History (February 3, 2020), online: Edmonton and Area Land Trust <https://www.ealt.ca/indigenous-connections-blog-list/amiskwaciy-wskahikan-edmonton-history>.
 Supra note 3.
 The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Saskatchewan River”, online: Britannica <https://www.britannica.com/place/Saskatchewan-River>.
 Supra note 3.
 “An Act to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, to make related amendments to the Food and Drugs Act and to repeal the Perfluorooctane Sulfonate Virtual Elimination Act”, 1st reading, House of Commons Debates, 43-2, No 79 (13 April 2021) at 1000 (Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson), online: House of Commons <https://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/en/bill/43-2/C-28>.