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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

The personification of a river

BY Will Nicholls Mar 12, 2021

The “personhood” granted to municipalities and corporations has always stuck in my craw. After all, they seem to be exempt to the rules of law compared to those who actually are born, drink their mother’s milk and learn the rights and wrongs most humans are taught.

As a real human, your actions and the consequences are not the same as those for these “persons.” If we compare what happens to a person who commits the crime of selling something fraudulently and then enjoys the resulting proceeds – one goes to prison and the other faces a fine. We’ll give you one guess whether it’s the paper person or the one who gave their mother birth contractions after a nine-month period.

In the past, forestry companies that clear-cut areas in Eeyou Istchee they weren’t supposed to were fined $5 per tree. The paltry penalty still allowed that corporate “person” to make a handsome profit, while the rest of us who committed the same crime would have experienced a much different lifestyle.

The concept of personhood – for entities other than actual persons – extends far beyond corporations in other places. In India, for example, it can include temples, churches, mosques, hospitals, universities, colleges, railways, village councils, rivers, and all animals and birds.

This makes personhood a little more interesting. If we considered our forests, rivers and wildlife as persons worthy of rights, our relationship with our environment might change a bit.

In fact, the Innu of Ekuanishit are using this very strategy to protect the Magpie River, which is central to their lives, culture and way of life. So, with the support of some local elected officials, the band council passed a resolution granting personhood to the Magpie. The Innu are supporting the river in return for sustaining their lives. Indeed, the river has always been a person for them.

Pier-Olivier Boudreault, a conservation biologist associated with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said this is not the first time a river has been granted personhood, but it’s a first for Canada. 

David Boyd, a human rights and environmental lawyer with the United Nations, said that municipalities and corporations have been granted legal personhood so granting the same rights to a river isn’t as strange as we might think.

Indeed legal personhood for the Magpie River could see the environmental movement have enough power to overcome the exploitation of other “persons” who have no consideration for future generations of naturally born persons.

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Will Nicholls is a Cree from Mistissini. He started his career off in radio and is still one of the youngest radio DJ’s in Canadian history, having a regular show on CFS Moosonee at the age of 12. Will was one of the founding members of the Nation, and has been its only Editor-in-Chief.