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First Nations chiefs adopt resolution declaring St. Lawrence River a legal person

The waters of the St.Lawrence River flow past the city of Montreal Wednesday, November 11, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press) The waters of the St.Lawrence River flow past the city of Montreal Wednesday, November 11, 2015. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The St. Lawrence River could soon get special status as a "person" with extra rights and protections following a resolution passed recently by the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL).

The AFNQL chiefs unanimously adopted a resolution on April 19 to confer legal personhood to Canada's second-largest river. Chief Ghislain Picard was in New York Monday to submit it to the United Nations with Jean-Charles Piétacho, chief of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit.

The April 19 resolution said the St. Lawrence River, a water system that spans 1,197 kilometres, "is facing several imminent threats that jeopardize the very existence and way of life of those who depend on it for their well-being" and that First Nations are committed defend its integrity as "ancestral Guardians of the territory and waters, including the River and its tributaries."

In a Canadian first, the Magpie River (also called the Muteshekau-shipu in the Innu language), in Quebec's Cote-Nord, was granted legal personhood status through twin resolutions by the local Innu council and by the local municipality of Minganie.

In 2017, New Zealand’s parliament passed legislation declaring the Whanganui River a legal person in the first-ever such case in the world.

A bill was tabled in May 2022 in Quebec's national assembly to strengthen protection of the river but it died with dissolution of the legislature ahead of the October election.

Around that same time last year, NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice tabled a private members bill in the House of Commons to grant the St. Lawrence River "the capacity of a natural person" and create a committee including members recommended by Indigenous communities to oversee its protection.

However, ever since the Montreal MP tabled C-271, no progress has been made.

Picard told CTV News on Monday that he wants to hear from Ottawa on where the government stands on ensuring the river has legal personhood.

"Our position from last week is more or less a statement, a declaration of sorts, that we are making, considering as well that both governments have indicated that they want to take action. But what we've seen since the tabling of Bill C-271 in Ottawa last year …. is not much movement," Picard said in an interview.

"One would wonder if it's a priority for the government. We're just adding our voice to what I would call urgency to be acting on all elements of our environment."

The resolution would be the first significant step toward a formal legal status as a person.

Chief Picard said the main goal is to affirm that local First Nations chiefs want to play an integral role in managing and ensuring the protection of the river system.

"This, of course, would mean that they have to be very much involved, at the outset, in any kind of action, decision — even legislation — regarding the St. Lawrence," he said.

Picard said the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation is also exploring a push to have the Gatineau River legally declared a person to grant it enhanced protection. Top Stories

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