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Vatican’s repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery should be considered a first step only, say First Nations leaders

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,
Dr. Wilton Littlechild. (Emily Jaycox/Black Press News Media file photo)

By Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,

International Chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation said he was sure that if there was a Pope willing to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, it would be Pope Francis.

And the Pontiff did just that, almost a year to the day after delivering a qualified apology on Indian residential schools in Rome April 1, 2022.

On March 30, a statement from the church was released saying the Doctrine of Discovery was not a teaching of the Catholic Church. Indigenous peoples have long called for the doctrine to be rescinded, including during his visit to Canada last summer when a canvas calling for him to “Rescind the Doctrine” was displayed prominently on his stop in Quebec.

The doctrine was supported by papal bulls (edicts) that were “manipulated for political purposes” in order to legitimize colonial actions in seizing Indigenous lands, reads the joint statement from the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development.

“The church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” reads the statement.

“The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’”

“Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others,” said Pope Francis in the statement.

Last summer, when Francis spent six days in Canada, he offered a broader apology on residential schools in Maskwacis, Alta. than the one he delivered in Rome.

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” said the Pontiff to throngs of Indigenous people gathered for the historic event.

Littlechild gifted the pope with a headdress after the apology, placing it on Pope Francis’ head.

“When he was here going across Canada, he couched (the Doctrine of Discovery) under the term of colonialism, but didn’t use those words, and survivors wanted to hear them,” said Littlechild, speaking to chiefs last week at the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs assembly In Ottawa. “They wanted to hear those words. It was quite a decision that he made (to deliver the joint statement).”

Littlechild, also a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the legacy of Indian residential schools, noted that the TRC’s 2015 final report included four Calls to Action for the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius to be repudiated.

Terra nullius was a papal bull issued in 1095 AD declaring land occupied by non-Christians as vacant, allowing Europeans to claim the land as “discovered.”

But not everyone was as pleased as Littlechild with the step to repudiate.

The Vatican needs to do more, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs.

“The formal repudiation comes without reparations or tangible actions to account for the systemic violence, destruction of land and culture, and genocide which were propagated by this deadly weapon of colonization,” said Phillip.

In a statement, AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald called for a “new, formal papal bull that affirms Indigenous Sovereignty and control over lands, resources, governance, culture, and language. They must also decree Indigenous traditions and ways of being as valuable, worthy of dignity and respect, and essential to humanity’s continued evolution and growth.”

There’s “no way in heaven” that Archibald’s demand for a new papal bull affirming Indigenous sovereignty will happen, says Cynthia Wesley-Esquimaux, chair of the governing circle for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The national centre was another Call to Action from the TRC to be funded by the federal government.

“But the second part of it, the recognition of those traditional practises and everything like that, is absolutely valid. If they said those kinds of things, that would absolutely repute, I think, in so many ways the perception that has been generated around those papal bulls that Indigenous people are savages, less than human,” said Wesley-Esquimaux.

She points out that there are 500 million Indigenous people globally in about 90 countries and such a statement from the pope “would have an effect everywhere.”

As for returning the land that was stolen from Indigenous peoples, Wesley-Esquimaux, who has worked in land claims for 40 years, says it is understood that “third party interests are paramount.”

“We understand that you cannot take land away from people who have purchased it even if it was a long time (ago) under fraudulent purposes called the Doctrine of Discovery. We understand that’s not going to happen and, no, we’re not going to kick everyone out of the country,” said Wesley-Esquimaux, a member of the Chippewa of Georgina Island First Nation and chair for Truth and Reconciliation for Lakehead University.

On the last day of the special chiefs assembly, an emergency draft resolution was passed that, in part, called on the Canadian government to formally denounce the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius and to ensure that the doctrine is no longer invoked “in any manner” in contemporary court cases or negotiations.

The resolution also called for the effective redress for lands, territories, and resources taken from First Nations without free, prior and informed consent.

“The government of Canada accepts that ancient doctrines such as this have no place in Canadian law and do not define our ongoing relationships with Indigenous peoples,” said federal ministers Marc Miller (Crown-Indigenous Relations), Patty Hajdu (Indigenous Services), and Dan Vandal (Northern Affairs) in a joint statement.

Wesley-Esquimaux says there is much “percolating underneath” as Indigenous people wait for a fuller response from Canada.

She points out that the Doctrine of Discovery is “not an idle thing” when it comes to Canada’s law. Only a few years ago, the Crown used arguments embedded in the Doctrine of Discovery in front of the Supreme Court of Canada to pursue limiting Aboriginal rights.

In the DeSautel case, the central question for the Supreme Court was whether people who were not Canadian citizens and who do not reside in Canada, can exercise an Aboriginal right that is protected under the Canadian Constitution. In 2020, the Supreme Court released its majority decision that non-citizens and non-residents can claim an Aboriginal right under the Constitution.

Wesley-Esquimaux adds that the church and Canada are distancing themselves from the impact the Doctrine of Discovery had on Indigenous Nations. The Vatican is claiming they didn’t intend to say Indigenous people didn’t have rights—an assertion she contests—and Canada is saying they understood the Doctrine of Discovery to mean Indigenous people didn’t have rights.

“And so everybody can wring their hands of it.”

However, Wesley-Esquimaux stresses that the Justin Trudeau government’s actions need to be considered wholistically.

“This government has put significantly more money into pretty much everywhere to try to create that nation-to-nation relationship,” she said.

Wesley-Esquimaux points to the creation of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation; the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls; the United Nations Declaration Act and the accompanying plan to bring existing legislation in line with the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; as well as such co-developed legislation as revitalizing Indigenous languages and implementing Indigenous control over child, youth and families.

“We’re also coming up into a space where Trudeau is not necessarily popular, so I’ve said to people, ‘Look you need to grab a hold of every possible opportunity that’s being presented and lock it in. Because if we go from here to a Conservative government, you think Pierre Poilievre as prime minister is going to say, ‘Let’s continue this conversation’?’” she says.

First Nations leaders are also calling on provincial governments to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery and to take appropriate action.

AFN Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard wants the Quebec Legault government to accept the “existence of First Nations governments and their exclusive legitimacy on anything that affects their populations.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council is demanding that Canada and British Columbia look at court cases, including the Nuchatlaht title case, to reform any arguments to the court that relied on the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Nuchatlaht title case is a fight for recognition and self-determination over 200-square-kilomtres of the 510-square-kilometre Nootka Island. The Nuchatlaht argued they were forced from their territories through the creation of the reserve system; and the imposition of the Forestry Act has made it illegal to harvest timber and build dwellings; and the imposition of the Parks Act has made it illegal to cut flowers and harvest berries.