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Striking a balance: legal rights for Tenàgàdino Zibi/Gatineau River

April 11th,2024 | Valley Voices

By Lissa Cowan

It was standing room only to celebrate World Water Day at the Wakefield community centre in March. Friends of the Gatineau River (FOG) and Transition écologique La Pêche Coalition for a Green New Deal presented “I Am the Magpie”, a film about how the Innu acquired legal personhood to protect the mighty Magpie River (Mutehekau Shipu as named by the Innu). Produced by Susan Fleming, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and Kim O’Bomsawin, the film captures the strength, beauty and peace of the Magpie River in northern Quebec.

Yenny Vega Cárdenas, president of the International Observatory of the Rights of Nature, took on the case of protecting the Magpie River and was a panellist at the event. “Granting legal personhood to the Magpie River represents a paradigm shift, as it changes our relationship with nature,” she explained. 

This approach to conservation falls under the legal framework of the Rights of Nature, which recognizes that natural phenomena have the intrinsic right to exist outside of their relationship to humans. This global movement is based on Indigenous knowledge that nature, including rivers, forests and other ecosystems, have intrinsic and spiritual value and rights that must be upheld during human intervention and use. Several countries such as New Zealand and Ecuador have recognized bodies of water as legal persons. 

Gilbert Whiteduck, Elder and former chief of Kitigan Zibi, spoke as a panellist about co-founding the Tenàgàdino Alliance with Rita Jain, a director of FOG and Chelsea municipal councillor. Whiteduck is working with Jain, local volunteers, communities and stakeholders to create a people’s movement to recognize the river as a legal person. “Colonization allowed many people in this region to become very rich – very rich at the expense of nature and the water,” he said. For the Tenàgàdino Zibi/Gatineau River, the legal designation would show respect for the continued cultural and spiritual significance of this precious waterway. Other panellists agreed that pursuing the course of legal personhood for the river is the way to go.

 “This is a crucial next step in the fight for water justice,” said Maude Barlow, author of “Still Hopeful” and regional and international water protector, UN advisor, Council of Canadians. She spoke about the importance of encouraging, involving and supporting young people in their commitment to social justice actions such as this.

Whiteduck echoed her calls when he said, “The youth will be that energy that will move things forward.” 

“When we take care of the land, we take care of each other,” he added, continuing, “It’s in the action, not in the words, and what will that action be?” 

Here are some ways you can take part in the Rights of Nature global movement with the Tenàgàdino Alliance, as we act together to obtain legal personhood for the Gatineau River:

  1. Sign our statement: https://tinyurl.com/tenagadinorights
  2. Follow us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tenagadino.alliance/
  3. Contact the Tenàgàdino Alliance to volunteer: tenagadino@gmail.com
  4. Talk about it with others, including your municipal councillors, mayors and MRC Prefect

Lissa Cowan is a Chelsea resident and a member of the Tenàgàdino Alliance. 

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