Should the Fraser River Estuary have legal rights?

A new report scopes pathways for according the Fraser River Estuary legal rights within Canada’s regulatory framework.

Report cover: Rights of Nature - Pathways to legal personhood for the Fraser River Estuary.
Photo by Alex Harris.

Currently, the legislative framework in Canada grants legal personhood to corporations, governments, and universities, giving them the legal capacity to act in their own best interests. Yet this granting of personhood does not extend to non-human species or other living entities in the natural world. Ecosystems and non-human animals have no legal recognition, agency, or intrinsic worth in the eyes of the law.

The Rights of Nature movement argues that ecosystems should have inherent rights and protections, similar to the concept of fundamental human rights. 

Some argue that the Fraser River Estuary, which is the largest in western Canada and drains one of the most productive salmon-bearing rivers in the world, should be granted such rights. 

The Fraser River Estuary and the life it supports, however, is not viewed by governments as having intrinsic worth. British Columbia, a province whose identity is tied to its biodiversity, does not even have its own standalone protections for wildlife, such as endangered species legislation. 

Even with such legislation at the federal level, like the Species at Risk Act, it is intentionally written to not bind governments to the same legal obligations and prohibitions as its citizens. As a result, species decline and degradation of habitat that occurs from government sanctioned projects continues unabated. 

A new report by researchers from the University of British Columbia and Raincoast Conservation Foundation seeks to determine how granting the Fraser River Estuary legal rights could produce much-needed changes to governance in the region and how those changes could recover species at-risk. 

Rights of Nature is a growing body of law that seeks to reframe how nature is conceptualized under the law, and how it is governed, by broadening the legal rationale for its protection. 

The authors conducted a global survey of Rights of Nature laws and analyzed their uptake and enforcement in varying political and cultural landscapes around the world. The legal content (the law’s scope and strength), the form of law, and the feasibility of applying similar laws within Canada were examined. 

“To be effective, the content of any Rights of Nature law must balance the breadth of protections with the specificity required to implement the law and uphold the rights granted. We found two pathways that were most feasible (given the current colonial legal framework) for according the Rights of Nature laws to the Fraser River Estuary”, states Avery Pasternak, a UBC Allard School of Law student and lead author. 

“The current legal landscape perpetuates decisions regarding land-use, water, and species management to be made in silos. It fails to account for the cumulative effects that ongoing habitat destruction has on the health of the estuary. A governance structure or personhood law with regulatory teeth could help stem the adverse effects of industrialization. Such an approach is needed to put the estuary, and the 102 species at risk of extinction it supports, on a path towards recovery”, states Kristen Walters, second author of the report and Director of the Lower Fraser Salmon Conservation Program at Raincoast. 

The Fraser River Estuary ecosystem is being degraded at an unprecedented rate due to a suite of cumulative effects brought on by a failure of our current legislative and regulatory framework. Rights of Nature encompasses a legal innovation that can facilitate a much needed shift in how the estuary is regarded under the law. 

Embracing the concept of legal personhood for the Fraser River Estuary can mark a leap in transforming Canada’s perspective on nature, from a set of resources to a whole, interconnected being.