Dr. Kelsey Leonard believes that to protect water for future generations we need to recognize its inherent rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve. A global movement has emerged in recent years known as Rights of Nature or Earth Law whereby governments are legally recognizing the personhood of natural entities such as rivers and mountains.

Kelsey Leonard

Kelsey Leonard 
> Professor, Faculty of Environment 
> Water scholar/activist advocating for Indigenous water rights
> International speaker

A researcher at the University of Waterloo and member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation (located on what is currently known as Long Island, New York) Leonard is working with communities and governments around the world to assist in the legal recognition of the rights of water as a living being. Bodies of water feel, hear and move just as people do, so why shouldn’t their right to exist be protected?

“Shinnecock means people of the shore,” Leonard says. “Being a water person is very much inherent to my identity, being a water protector, coast protector and shore protector. If that shore ceases to exist, I cease to exist.”

The human connection to water  

Every March 22, World Water Day is celebrated globally to focus on understanding how humans and water are inescapably connected. To some, water is taken for granted, for others, it is a scare resource placing them perpetually on the edge of survival.

“Every person on this planet is born with a natal connection to water. We are nurtured by water in the womb, water breaks and we are born. Within that is an ethic of responsibility that centres us as water citizens,” Leonard says.

Leonard’s research explores transboundary water governance of the Great Lakes. A new researcher in the Faculty of Environment, she also explores ways of facilitating Indigenous Knowledge to restore our threatened oceans, lakes and rivers, while asserting Indigenous sovereignty.

“My research centers around Indigenous water justice, including identifying pathways for Indigenous conservation practices to inform international water policy,” she says.

To Leonard, facilitating these pathways means not only halting exploitative practices, but helping non-Indigenous People join a global movement to reimagine their relationship with water. 

In a TEDTalk with over three million views, Leonard laid out her case to a global audience. She wants people to see water as a member of the community and as such, there is an obligation to be good citizens.

Water does so much for us we cannot treat it as a separate being. We are all “water citizens.”

As water citizens, Leonard continues, we all share the same obligation to protect water as we would any human in the community. With this new mindset, society should fully recognize our duty to protect that member of our community.

As water citizens, how can we be protectors?  

“There are two world views that we are currently handed, both of which have a different approach to the treatment of water,” Leonard says. “One belief is that water is animate and alive and understanding water has an inherit right to exist, flourish and naturally evolve. Versus thinking of water as a commodity. That is very human centric.”

To change these views and grant water the rights it deserves, Leonard stresses the importance of action.

“Your call to action can be anything” says Leonard. “Whether that is helping your local endangered body of water, talking to someone about the importance of water rights or being bold and reaching out to your local MP.”

There are signs such calls are being heard with one of Quebec’s rivers being safeguarded from potentially harmful hydroelectric projects.

“The Magpie River is the first river in Canada to be recognized as a legal person under the law” says Leonard. “What’s unique about the Muteshekau-shipu (or Magpie River) is that it received recognition of its legal personhood and inherent rights from both the Innu of Ekuanitshit and the Minganie Regional County Municipality. This level of co-governance for rights of nature is ground-breaking in Canada. Moreover, this process to recognize the rights of the Muteshekau-shipu is the result of fierce leadership and advocacy by Innu women and youth.”

Indigenous self-governance, determination and advocacy have led us to the water protection of the Magpie River. This is a great step towards water justice and rights and as water citizens, it is important to continue this call to action now and into the future.