Panel 408 - Personhood Rights for Water Bodies: A Fad or Path to Sustainable Development Goals?

Conference Day: 
Day 1 - November 13th 2019
Takeaways and recommendations: 

Personhood Rights for Water Bodies: A Fad or Path to Sustainable Development Goals?


Organized by: University of Waterloo, Nancy Goucher

Speakers: Peter Wood, National Campaign Manager, Environmental Rights, David Suzuki Foundation; Lynda M Collins, Professor, Centre for Environmental Law & Global Sustainability, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa; Caleb Z. Behn, Special Advisor - Water, Assembly of First Nations

Moderator: Nancy Goucher, Knowledge Mobilization Specialist, University of Waterloo’s Water Institute


  1. Giving personhood rights to water bodies is a policy option for water protection. Legal relationships with nature are being reinvented. Several countries are enacting legislation giving nature or water personhood rights.

  2. Corporations (non-human entities) have personhood rights in Canada. In a court case, when nature does not, it will always lose. 

  3. The idea is not new. It is found in many indigenous cultures around the world. 

  4. The human right to a healthy environment is an effective tool. Giving personhood rights to nature goes a step further. 

  5. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms currently does not include rights for nature but could be a constitutional safety net for environmental protection if environmental rights were enshrined.

  6. The Blue Dot movement through the David Suzuki Fundation is working to make a healthy environment a personal right in Canada. So far 174 municipalities, and 100,000 individuals, have signed on.

  7. Depending on race, Canadians experience a different level of environmental health. For example, there are indigenous communities that lack of critical infrastructure to maintain clean drinking water.

  8. The Canadian legal system is seen to be designed for conflict mitigation, not justice. It does not include ways to incorporate indigenous knowledge. As a result, indigenous knowledge is being judged by Canadian law.


  1. Choose biological markers of the health of nature to be written in the statute, then choose the human component (markers of health based on how people experience nature) including indigenous knowledge. 

  2. In its overarching project of sustaining our presence on Earth, environmental law has failed. Ditch the idea of having a specific area of law: environmental law doesn’t really work. It needs to be included in all aspects of law.



  1. The Rights of Nature; David Boyd 

  2. Human Rights, Environmental Protection, and the Sustainable Development Goals; John H. Knox