What is a Legal Person in Canada?
It has recently been disclosed that any entity could possibly be declared a legal person if the courts want to do so. Consider the following:
In March 2015, an internationally-renowned white water river in Quebec called the Magpie River was granted legal personhood, a first for Canada. This was done mostly to protect the river from further development by Quebec Hydro and for other environmental concerns.
This was done by way of a two-parallel resolution by a local Indigenous community and municipality, setting the stage for a similar effort for the St. Lawrence River. The resolutions were drafted by a Montreal-based organization called the International Observatory on the Rights of Nature (IORN), a group founded by Indigenous groups and the Quebec chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. The Magpie River is recognized worldwide for its rapids and is a prime location for white-water expeditions, most notably by the prestigious National Geographic magazine, which ranks it among the top ten rivers in the world for this sport.
According to environmental lawyers in Montreal, under Quebec civil law, this new legal person classification means that the river can hold rights and obligations. It is up in the air, however, how Canadian courts will view this development, and what happens if there is a violation or potential violation of the rights of the Magpie River. According to legal experts, nobody knows.
At the time the resolution passed, guardians were appointed to protect the river’s rights and it will be up to these guardians to initiate any legal actions. Also, should litigation occur, anyone having a meaningful relationship to the natural features of the river, whether it is a fisherman, canoeist, zoologist, or logger may be able to act as a court intervener in order to speak to the values which the river represents.
According to IORN, the recognition of the rights of nature is a growing global movement. For example, New Zealand granted legal recognition to the Whanganui River. Countries, such as India and Ecuador, have also recognized rights and protections for nature in their constitutions. Granting legal personhood to the Magpie River by the Indigenous municipality may be the first step in revolutionizing the protection of nature in Canada.
In common law jurisdictions, such as Canada, the law considers pets or companion animals to be property only. However, other jurisdictions are beginning to grant the status of a legal person or entity to animals. For example, in 2018, the High Court in the state of Uttarakhand, India, accorded the status of legal person to animals on the basis that “they have a distinct persona with [the] corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person”. It declared that all residents of the state were, henceforth, guardians of animals and endowed with the duty to ensure their welfare and protection.
Also, in 2018, the Illinois State House passed a law that forced divorce courts to regard the couple as “parents” of a pet. Alaska passed a law that assigns joint custody of a pet in a divorce action. In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon, the European Union recognized animals as “sentient beings”. The French National Assembly adopted the same recognition for animals in 2015. In the same year, both New Zealand and the province of Quebec officially recognized animals as “sentient beings”.
If the law were changed, however, so that pets would no longer be classified as property, but rather, as persons, this would have serious ramifications for veterinarians, who would become vulnerable to lawsuits demanding damages, for example, for loss of companionship, pain, or suffering. In fact, the personhood of animals would also cause ripple effects in agriculture, cosmetics, zoos, parks, and the use of animals for experimentation, etc. The implications are enormous.
It can be expected that pressure to give animals or pets personhood will continue. According to Statistics Canada, there are around 8.1 million cats and 7.7 million dogs living in Canadian households. Pets are now a big business, as Statistics Canada reports. In 2019, Canadians spent $5.686 billion on pets and pet food, with an additional $3.919 billion spent on veterinary and other services for pets.
What Does All This Mean?
A legal person has been defined by law as an entity that has rights and obligations. Obviously, a river or an animal cannot defend its “rights”, should it be declared a legal person. Declaring non-humans legal persons would permit others, such as environmental or animal rights groups, the opportunity to bring legal challenges to protect such entities. The outcome of this expansion of human rights to non-humans is unfathomable.