It was a week of emotional rollercoasters. Indigenous peoples’ anticipation of a papal apology mixed with anxiety, sorrow, anger, and pessimism towards an entity whose public decrees (known as papal bulls) remain the source and cause of ongoing genocide in the Americas and indeed, around the world.

The Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery is at the root of centuries of conflict and genocide in the Americas. This doctrine stated two things: Everything that is “discovered” in “The New World” belongs to the “discoverer,” and that the peoples in “The New World” are “heathens” because they are not Christian. The doctrine ordered that they needed to be converted to Christianity or eliminated.

In their study of the Doctrine of Discovery, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues described these papal bulls as follows:

…“discovery” has been used as a framework for justification to dehumanize, exploit, enslave and subjugate Indigenous peoples and dispossess them of their most basic rights, laws, spirituality, worldviews and governance and their lands and resources. Ultimately it was the very foundation of genocide.

Indigenous peoples wanted to hear Pope Francis acknowledge the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Flowing from the Doctrine of Discovery, and with direct blessing of past popes, centuries of oppression and genocidal crimes were committed and exposed by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2016, and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry in 2019.

Invoking the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery. The Papal bull is at the root of the colonization of the Americas, providing justification to dehumanize, exploit, enslave and subjugate Indigenous peoples and dispossess them of their most basic rights, laws, spirituality, lands and resources.

Canada is a crime scene

A genuine apology would have included an admission of guilt for the genocide created by the Holy Roman Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery, which was used to increase the wealth and prosperity of the Church and European monarchs.

During his visit, Indigenous peoples also wanted Pope Francis, at the very least, to right these past injustices by publicly rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery. To hear these statements from the Pope would have meant so much to so many. It would have laid the groundwork for justice, and then for healing. Instead, the words he spoke, perhaps in genuine earnestness, missed the mark because he did not recognize the culpability of the Catholic Church.

Also, the Pope selected his words carefully, by only apologizing for “some Christians” and “some members of the clergy,” instead of taking responsibility for the evil and far-reaching monstrosity the Catholic Church created through its doctrines and edicts.

Instead of healing, the Pope opened up old wounds

It is no small wonder that Pope Francis’ visit to Canada triggered so many emotions and brought to the fore the polarization amongst Indigenous peoples regarding how we can find justice, healing, and moving forward. No one expected centuries-old anger at the Catholic Church to be redirected during the Pope’s visit, and to pit Indigenous peoples against one another in ways that were disrespectful and indicative of how much we still need to heal.

We cannot judge each other when it comes to how individuals heal. While there were elders who felt comforted by Pope Francis’ statements, there were those who felt outraged and angry. Everyone however, is entitled to their feelings.

Pope Francis’ apology was brought about by Indigenous peoples, who called for the Pope to apologize for the Indian Residential School system in the Truth and Reconciliation Report Calls to Action.

But it was the spirits of the Indigenous children in unmarked graves, being discovered in former Indian residential schools, which prompted Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize. These tiny spirits taken from their families by force and killed in these “schools” speak to the world community stronger than any advocate could. They are telling us we need to find them, and heal the pain. They see the anger of their nations and they want justice.

Many Indigenous children were targets of abuse by those running these “schools” designed to erase the existence of an Onkwehón:we language, culture and to get rid of the “Indian problem.” All this destruction was done in the name of power and greed to steal Indigenous lands and their resources.

Killing the Indian in the child

Throughout last week, I thought of my Aksothkénhen (this is the word we use when someone has passed away. Otherwise, the word for grandmother in Kanien’kéha, or Mohawk language, is Aksótha).

Gladys Jacobs attended Shingwauk Industrial School in the early 1900’s at the age of 5 years old.

She and her sister kept their language by secretly walking out of earshot of the teachers and staff, or they risked brutal consequences, such as getting their tongues pierced with needles. My paternal grandmother’s generation suffered through nutritional experiments amongst many other dehumanizing experiences.

While the staff were eating steak and vegetables, the children were served watery stew without any protein, and fed lard every day to put bulk on their under-nourished bodies so that when they were posed for propaganda pictures taken by Indian Affairs, they would appear healthy. These photos belied what was actually happening in these schools.

Aksothkénha Gladys died when I was six years old, but I cherish the memories I have of her.

…they risked brutal consequences, such as getting their tongues pierced with needles. My paternal grandmother’s generation suffered through nutritional experiments amongst many other dehumanizing experiences.

Before my first day of day school, she had told me that I was lucky to come home every day when school finished. She told me that when she went to school, she stayed there and didn’t get to see her mother until she was much older. My uncle Harvey told me that she did not return home until she was 16.

The goal was to create a cheap labour force

The industrial schools’ goal of assimilation was to create a cheap labor force that could read and write to work in factories. The forcible removal of children by the RCMP were brutal attacks upon the family unit, language and culture, while simultaneously encouraging settlers to take more of our homelands.

Industrial schools, residential schools, and day schools were training for factory work — a goal that did not require a real education. Even today, that legacy continues. On-reserve schools are underfunded. Even former auditor general Sheila Fraser said that it would take 28 years with proper funding for the quality of on-reserve education to catch up with the quality of education most children in Canada receive.

As for my grandmother and children of her generation, they spent half the day working, and if they were lucky, had school the other half of the day. But really, they were always working.

In his 1907 report, Dr. Peter Bryce described the poor conditions and substandard care as the primary cause of death of Indigenous children at these schools, noting that a quarter of all children were sick, or died from tuberculosis as a result. Bryce called for a major overhaul in the system of residential schooling, and that each student be considered a potential tuberculosis case and be treated accordingly.”

The “whistleblower on residential schools” Dr. Peter Bryce described the poor conditions and substandard care as the primary cause of death of Indigenous children at these schools, noting that a quarter of all children were sick, or died from tuberculosis as a result. Bryce called for a major overhaul in the system of residential schooling. The second image is front page coverage of the report in Victoria’s Daily Colonist, 16 November 1907.

CMAJ and

Bryce’s report was for Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932. Scott informed Bryce that his annual medical reports on tuberculosis in residential schools were no longer necessary. Scott and Sir John A. MacDonald thought it was too costly to provide good care to Indigenous children, because the actual goal was to eliminate Indigenous peoples from society.

Fortunately, we are still here, and a paper trail of proving the genocidal history of Canada exists.

Rebuffed by Scott and MacDonald, Bryce went on to publish his book entitled, “The Story of a National Crime,” which should be part of all school curricula. Bryce wrote the following about Scott’s indifference: “In this particular matter, [Scott] is counting upon the ignorance and indifference of the public to the fate of the Indians.”

Catholic ideology is at the root of the crime

Ignorance and indifference were referenced by Pope Francis’ apology, but both still prevail in contemporary Canada. Unfortunately, the Pope failed to acknowledge that the root causes of this lack of concern for Indigenous peoples are to be found in the religious ideology of the Catholic Church, as spelled out in the Doctrine of Discovery.

While some Indigenous peoples believe that the Pope’s visit meant nothing, there are several things that were beneficial. Pope Francis made the issue of Indian residential schools an international story. He forced the discussion of the Indian Residential School system back to Canadians, and numerous media outlets carried the discussions and voices of a diversity of Indigenous peoples.

On July 27, a banner was dropped on a bridge over the 401 near Belleville, Ontario calling for the repeal of the Doctrine of Discovery..


Another beneficial outcome was the Pope’s fostering of discussion and apparent openness to addressing issues of justice.

As head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis should embrace this opportunity and take responsibility by being more specific when addressing the challenges that Indigenous peoples have faced in the past, and continue to face in Canada today. The Catholic Church has ongoing responsibilities that must be met in close collaboration with Indigenous peoples, including restitution and reparations.

By taking a leadership role in achieving justice, the Church would be taking a solid step toward actual reconciliation.

The Pope’s apology therefore, fell short of truth, reconciliation, and humanity because of the words not spoken. Specifically, the missing acknowledgement of the Church’s role in the genocide of the Peoples of the Americas.

The Pope did not mention the Doctrine of Discovery, even though it has been condemned by the International community and UN human rights bodies. These condemnations have not deterred judges, lawyers, and Canadian courts from using the Doctrine of Discovery to further dispossess Indigenous peoples from their homelands.

The intentional erasure of Indigenous peoples’ history is ongoing. White supremacy continues to be sold as “progress” to justify land dispossession. It has also caused Indigenous peoples’ traditional forms of governance and ceremonies to be considered illegal under Canadian law, thereby criminalizing the work of Indigenous Land Defenders. This must change and this is something upon which Pope Francis could have a major positive influence.

From the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry, Indigenous peoples have been pouring their hearts and souls out describing in detail the pain and suffering endured for centuries to a society that is indifferent to our plight. This genocidal project must be taken seriously by Canada, and its provinces, who continue to invoke the racist doctrine to steal land and its peoples.

As Pope Francis stated, the opposite of life is not death, but indifference. This has been the case in Canada and in the Americas for far too long.

The brave souls who spoke of the horrors of the Indian Residential School system taught us that the truth is one step towards freedom, one step towards healing, one more step towards peace. But, like the process of reconciliation, it is just one step in a journey that may last a lifetime.

Sitting in rooms in which uncomfortable truths are told is part of reconciliation. It is part of a long process that cannot begin until there are reparations, restitution, and until the genocidal project ends.

The Holy See stated at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that the Doctrine of Discovery was no longer valid, and that they had abrogated it in 1537 with “Sublimis Deus” in which they stated that Indigenous peoples were not to be deprived of liberty and property. It goes on to say that “should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.” Then in 1741, “Immensa Pastorea” reinforced this abrogation.

Pope Francis could have reiterated this abrogation and it would have strengthened his apology, along with accepting the Catholic Church’s historic position on their racist doctrine. But instead, there was a strong avoidance of the subject in the apology causing many Indigenous peoples, even Catholics, to be exasperated.

Furthermore, it is puzzling why the Pope acknowledges that the Indian Residential School system was indeed genocide – not just cultural genocide, but he was only able to admit this on the plane ride home. It begs many questions as to why only off Canadian ‘soil’ was the Pope more comfortable in speaking this truth.

Nonetheless, in the air or on the ground, this admission still does not acknowledge the role of the Catholic Church, as an institution, in the genocidal colonial project, which is foundational to all settler nations in the Americas.

The Doctrine of Discovery laid the foundation for legal fictions, which still greatly impacts the lives of Indigenous peoples. Stolen lands, stolen resources, and stolen children — this is the foundation that perpetuates the systemically racist ideologies for which the Vatican remains responsible. More recently, this includes environmental racism whereIndigenous communities are pressured with limited economic opportunities because of the Indian Act.

Internationally, the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination stated the following:

“… any doctrine of superiority based on racial differentiation is scientifically false, morally condemnable, socially unjust and dangerous, and that there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere …”

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that the Doctrine of Discovery and its assumptions are legally invalid. Canada itself passed legislation in June 2021 with the federal Act respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples prohibiting the use of the Doctrine of discovery and terra nullius, meaning “lands belonging to no one”.

Nevertheless, Canadian provinces and their judges continue to dispossess Indigenous peoples of their homelands and resources based on these same racist doctrines. Defying their own rule of law, creating confusion and dysfunction, in order to serve corporations and stockholders of resource companies.

Indigenous peoples must still fight to defend their basic human rights

Colonial court systems throughout the Americas still uphold the Doctrine of Discovery as evidenced by their decisions against Indigenous peoples. Until the Vatican admits to its role in this genocidal project, land dispossession and the assassinations of Indigenous land defenders in the Americas will continue unabated. The Pope’s apology and public repudiation of the Doctrine would have helped all Indigenous peoples, not solely those in so-called Canada.

While I respect Pope Francis for his efforts, and opening a conversation, I wish he would do more to correct the damage done by the Doctrine of Discovery, and to help chart a path toward justice and genuine reconciliation. There is still such a long road ahead of us as we heal, but it’s never too late for the Church and its leader to do the right thing.

In the meantime, Indigenous peoples will continue to defy the imposition of racist colonial ideologies. It is part of our obligations to the next seven generations.