AFN leader pitches ‘personhood’ status for St. Lawrence River at the UN

The leader of the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec and Labrador is pushing the UN to give a “personhood” designation to the St. Lawrence River.

“The St. Lawrence River shelters and supports a rich diversity of ecosystems, including several endangered species,  and fulfills several ecological functions essential to their survival. It faces multiple imminent threats that jeopardize the very existence and way of life for those who depend on it for their well-being,” Ghislain Picard told member states at the UN.

The 1,200 km waterway connects the Great Lakes in the west to the Atlantic Ocean in the east.

For generations, it has sustained Indigenous populations and is a hub of biodiversity above and below the surface.

“We were a river people,” said Kenneth Deer, a longhouse elder from Kahnawake. “Our rights don’t end at the shoreline.”

The St. Lawrence crosses the territory of at least four nations including Innu and Mohawk.

The petition Picard presented will protect the river from development – and grant it the same legal rights as a human being.

“Human rights are largely dependent on our respect for the rights of nature and in particular, water,” Picard told the UN. “As First Nations, we must join forces and ensure that we are involved ahead of any action to grant legal entity status to the St. Lawrence River.

This wouldn’t be the first time a river in Canada was given that designation.

In February 2021, the Magpie River in the Cote Nord district of Quebec received that protection.

It was the Innu of Ekuanishit who petitioned for it.

They were on hand to show support at the UN.

“We Innu have always protected nature, and especially the rivers which represent the veins of the Earth,” said Chief Jean-Charles Piétacho in French. “They must maintain their function as intended by the Creator.

“We are, and will continue to be the guardians of the earth and nature.”

In 2017, New Zealand passed a groundbreaking law granting personhood status to the Whanganui River – a first, according to a 2022 report from Associated Press. The story said the law declares that the river is a living whole, from the mountains to the sea, incorporating all its physical and metaphysical elements.

The law was part of a settlement with the Whanganui Iwi, comprising Māori from a number of tribes who have long viewed the river as a living force. The novel legal approach set a precedent that has been followed by some other countries including Bangladesh, which in 2019 granted all its rivers the same rights as people.

The resolution put forward by the AFNQL was adopted unanimously by members of the UN. But it hasn’t made its way through the courts.

With files from the Canadian Press

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