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RIGHTS OF NATURE: Pathways to legal Personhood for the Fraser River Estuary

By Avery Pasternak and Kristen Walters, University of British Columbia and Raincoast Conservation Foundation “Imbuing the estuary with legal standing and personality captures the estuary’s intrinsic value as a living organism, beyond what resources it can provide to support economic growth and industrialization.”


The objective of this research project was to better understand the feasibility of granting legal personhood to the Fraser River Estuary. The resultingreport seeks to provide an overview of the key legal pathways towards recognition of nature as a rights- bearing legal subject. We examined case studies from jurisdictions across the world alongside the current state of Canada and British Columbia’s environmental law regime to determine which legal pathways are the most feasible to accord the Fraser River Estuary legal rights and recognition.


As the largest river in western Canada and one of the most productive salmon-bearing rivers in the world, the Fraser River is a critically important ecosystem and economic driver for the region. The Fraser River Estuary, located at the mouth of the river where it meets Georgia Strait in the Pacific Ocean, is one of the province’s most biodiverse regions, providing vital habitat for many bird, fish, and mammal species.

Juvenile salmon rely on this estuary for food and protection during a critical phase of their development as they transition from freshwater to the marine environment. However, ongoing colonization and industrialization have had devastating impacts on estuarine ecosystem health and Fraser River salmon populations.

Governance of the estuary is antiquated, and the current state of Canada’s environmental laws take an extractive approach to ecosystem management that fails to protect plant and animal species. British Columbia, a province whose identity is tied to its biodiversity, has no standalone protections for wildlife, such as endangered species legislation.

Regulators are unable, or unwilling, to address many of the existential threats facing species and habitats within the Fraser River Estuary. In many cases, environmental law authorizes this ecosystem’s degradation by fragmenting interconnected habitats into ‘natural resources’ to be industrialized in the pursuit of economic growth.

The regulatory landscape perpetuates land-use, water management, and species management decisions to be made in silos, failing to account for the cumulative effects ongoing habitat destruction and degradation has on the resilience of the estuarine ecosystem. The estuary, and all the living things it supports, are not viewed as having intrinsic worth.

Economic imperatives consistently override the need for ecological protection, and as a result, threaten the very existence of one of the most ecologically important regions in the province. The Rights of Nature is a growing body of law that seeks to reframe how nature is conceptualized under the law, and subsequently how it is governed, by broadening the legal impetus for its protection.

Laws granting rights to nature are not a catch-all solution, but rather a supplement to pre-existing conservation, restoration, and species recovery initiatives.

The report explores the permutations of rights of nature laws in jurisdictions worldwide and examines their compatibility within Canada’s regulatory environment. It seeks to determine how granting the Fraser River Estuary legal rights and standing could produce much-needed changes to governance in the region and how those changes could accelerate conservation efforts already taking place.