Vancouver Sun . David Boyd

A Kermode bear, better known as a Spirit Bear, is seen fishing near the Riordan River on Gribbell Island in the Great Bear Rainforest in September 2013. JONATHAN HAYWARD / THE CANADIAN PRESS


Could extraordinary developments occurring in New Zealand offer a way to break the impasse over treaty negotiations in Canada? Over the past decade, negotiations between the indigenous Maori and the New Zealand government over unresolved land ownership disputes have produced previously unimaginable outcomes — new laws recognizing that nature has legal rights.

The Maori possess a distinctive worldview in which people are deeply intertwined with nature, rather than separate from it. According to Maori cosmology, humans are not only related to their ancestors, but also the animals, plants, mountains, rivers, and forests where they live.

Many Aboriginal people in Canada share a similar outlook, concisely summarized in the phrase “all my relations,” which goes beyond aunts and cousins to include ravens, killer whales, water, rocks, and more.

This radical understanding of our place in the cosmos is reflected in two recent New Zealand laws. Te Urewera National Park was created in the 1950s on land that had been illegally taken from the Maori over the course of the previous century. The Maori had consistently pressed for recognition of their relationship to this region, expressed as rangatiratanga (authority), whanaungatanga (kinship), and kaitiakitanga (stewardship).

The government acknowledged the wrongs of the past, but was unwilling to transfer title over the lands in the national park to the Maori. A surprising compromise emerged. A law passed in 2014 removed the national park designation, and recognized the land as a legal person. Title was transferred from the Crown to Te Urewera itself. In other words, the land now owns the land.

Earlier this year, New Zealand passed a similar law recognizing the Whanganui River as a legal person. The law defines the river in Maori terms as comprising both the physical and metaphysical elements of the watershed.

Some Canadians may struggle with the concept of granting rights to an ecosystem or river. And yet it is far from unusual in our legal system to extend rights to non-human entities. For example, corporations are designated by the law as legal persons and enjoy a wide range of rights.

In Canada, we have countless ongoing disputes between the Crown and Indigenous people over the ownership of land. For example, in many parts of B.C., treaties were never negotiated and contemporary negotiations are paralyzed. A major stumbling block is the unresolved question of who owns the land, 90 per cent of which is designated as provincial Crown land.

First Nations claim title to almost all of Crown lands in the province. Courts have ruled that some of these claims have a legitimate legal basis. Yet the province’s negotiating position is that it will only “give back” five per cent of Crown lands through the treaty process.

Could B.C. and Canada emulate New Zealand’s ground-breaking laws? It might contribute to breaking the treaty impasse.

In addition, this innovative approach would enable all Canadians to reflect on our relationship with the places we call home. In light of the global environmental crisis, we need to rethink concepts like ownership and property rights.

Recognizing that nature has rights could help us transcend the destructive perception that humans are separate from our environment and superior to other creatures. In fact, we are part of the incredible community of life on Earth. The air, water, soil, plants, wildlife and even the spirit of this place make us who we are, and sustain us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

If New Zealand can achieve justice, reconciliation and sustainability through this radical new approach, then Canada should consider implementing it here.

David Boyd is an environmental lawyer, University of B.C. professor, and author of nine books, including The Rights of Nature: A Legal Revolution that Could Save the World.