This week, the Vatican released a statement that repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery, the decree that has been used to subjugate Indigenous Peoples for half a millennium. But how should Canada reconcile the Church’s statement with what we see unfolding right now — another RCMP raid on Wet’suwet’en territory and the arrest of people protecting their unceded land?
These are the sorts of violent contradictions that have come to define Canada, a country whose justification for removing land from Indigenous Peoples is — rather embarrassingly for a 21st-century liberal democracy — a series of papal bulls from the 1490s.
The Doctrine of Discovery assumed that white Christian Europeans were superior, so they could take whatever land and resources they encountered, even if Indigenous people already lived there.
This fundamentally racist doctrine was used to justify the theft of Indigenous territory for 500 years. What most people don’t realize is that the Doctrine of Discovery still forms the legal basis for Crown jurisdiction over land in this country.
The Doctrine of Discovery categorized non-Christians as barbaric, and therefore ineligible to control their own lands and waters. The waves of genocide, of tearing children away from their parents, and of systemic cultural eradication were part of what the Catholic Church now acknowledges as “grave sins.” It’s now clear who the real barbarians were.
So the Vatican announcement is a step in the right direction. After reckoning with realities presented to him by Indigenous leaders on his official visit to Canada, Pope Francis pledged on Thursday that “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.”
That is a heartening commitment: but so much more needs to be done.
The big question on many people’s minds is: how will this week’s news from the Vatican change or impact Canadian law?
“There is a lot of conscious effort to disregard the Doctrine of Discovery in law,” says Tsimshian lawyer Merle Alexander. “Some of that's captured in things like the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act in British Columbia, and even more recently, the federal UN Declaration of Rights Indigenous Peoples Act, which — very specifically in the preamble — rejects the Doctrine of Discovery.”
Yet, there is nothing in the polarizing Bill C-15 — known as CANDRIP — that talks about what implementation would entail. The forces unleashed by the Doctrine of Discovery have indeed been tempered by treaties, Constitutional amendments, and legal challenges driven by Indigenous Peoples, who’ve pushed for recognition of what the courts call Aboriginal title and rights. But it is also true that the question of who has jurisdiction over the land — since more than 50 per cent of the country has never been surrendered or ceded through treaty — is far from settled.
“Clearly we're moving to a different time period. We just need the practice and the theory to ring true together,” Alexander said.
Dude! Where’s my land?
To understand how this all looks from an Indigenous perspective, it’s worth witnessing this conversation from the free online series Home on Native Land. With Cherokee legal scholar Jeff Corntassel likening the Doctrine of Discovery to brazen theft, the video identifies the Doctrine’s modern-day disciples as faceless corporations, rolling into Indigenous backyards with bulldozers.
So what new conversations (and cartoons) could the Vatican’s latest announcement inspire? Now that the Doctrine has been repudiated: will the Church pay reparations, push for changes to Canadian law, and call upon those who used their debunked teachings to return what they took?
Not exactly. While the Vatican refer to their statement as "a powerful summons to abandon the colonizing mentality,” they also claim that the documents underpinning the Doctrine of Discovery have "never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.” In their decision, they blame the carnage that was carried out in the name of the Doctrine on “competing colonial powers” who manipulated papal bulls to their own political advantage. In fact — because Indigenous Peoples have sent wave upon wave of delegations to Rome to tell them so — the Vatican knew full well the pain and suffering that their policies inflicted. Rome also directly benefited from colonial plunder.
By absolving themselves of responsibility for the atrocities committed under their own laws, the Vatican is taking a position that’s “interesting, and somewhat insincere,” according to Corntassel. Indigenous rights lawyer Bruce McIvor explains that “It's more than a little rich… the Catholic Church has known for hundreds of years of the effect of the papal bulls. It undermines today's announcement to point fingers elsewhere.”
With their statement, the Catholic Church called for an end to the structural systems that were put in place under the Doctrine of Discovery, but stopped short of challenging settler states like Canada to formally repudiate it. Pope Francis also missed the opportunity to call on Catholic dioceses to return lands to Indigenous Peoples: in this country, the Catholic Church owns land and property worth $ 3.3 billion.
Despite being grounded in an absurd historical fiction, the ongoing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery is no joke. A meaningful step towards atonement, the Vatican’s announcement comes directly out of a process of dialogue that Indigenous people have been leading for generations. We raise our hands to those who have been outspoken and persistent, and whose work is healing dysfunctional relationships — between peoples, and with the land.
We call on everyone who is concerned with building a post-colonial society to hold lawmakers to account. The cozy reassurances of “reconciliation” are cold comfort when Indigenous land defenders are still being forcibly removed from unceded territories, and when Indigenous leaders are tossed out of legislatures for demanding a say in how their ancestral territories are developed. All of those actions also took place this week, under Canada's own, modern version of the Doctrine, known as “the assertion of Crown sovereignty.” We echo Bruce McIvor’s challenge, calling on the federal government to introduce legislation specifically repudiating the Doctrine, and commit to abandoning and opposing all policies and laws that flow from it.
Until then, we are applauding this Vatican move with the slowest of claps.
To hear the full conversation about the Doctrine of Discovery and “whose land is it, anyway??” - visit Home on Native Land.