Repudiation comes 500 years too late


The announcement by the Vatican that they are repudiating the ideology known as “The Doctrine of Discovery” has been welcomed by many Indigenous peoples around the world as a welcome first step in reversing the multitude of injustices and grievances suffered by them over centuries. However, the joint statement by the confusingly named “Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development”, is not nearly as straightforward as it may first appear.

The Doctrine of Discovery was based on Papal Bulls, or official statements issued by the Pope, in 1454 and 1493, which effectively granted to European monarchs whatever “dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south” of a line west and south of the European mainland. These documents gave European monarchs permission to invade, enslave, and steal the lands of any inhabitants of lands included in the area described. This included the Americas and Africa, and became the legal basis for colonial jurisdiction in those continents.

Upon such a basis was built the colonisation of Canada, the system which produced various Indian Acts, the Residential School system, every so-called Treaty entered into by the French and British Crowns within Canada, and the forced marginalisation of Indigenous peoples, confined by law to reserves, denied the right to participate in the use of natural resources on their own territory, and the situation, even today, where Indigenous people are the only group covered by a specific Act of the Canadian Parliament which gives a bureaucrat in Ottawa the right to decide who is, and who is not, considered Indigenous, status or otherwise.

The implications of the Vatican “repudiation” of the Doctrine of Discovery remain unclear. Much of the legislation governing Indigenous-Settler relations in Canada will need to be reconsidered, possibly amended or discarded. The treaties in Canada no longer have the same legal support, and the injustices resulting from the implementation of those agreements will certainly have to be addressed in the coming years.

But the repudiation is rather wishy-washy. It claims that the Doctrine was not a doctrine as such, but political statements which, unfortunately, “were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities”. This hardly reflects the wording of the Papal Bulls, which justify the granting of such overreaching authority to kings by pointing out that the invasion and conquest of Indigenous lands and peoples was to spread the Catholic faith, the monarchs simply being instruments of God’s will, as defined by the Popes.

The ultimate tragedy is that this superficial and begrudging repudiation comes 500 years too late. The damage has been done, and it has been extensive, costing untold number of lives, coming close to destroying entire cultures, reducing nations in the eyes of Canadian laws to mere “uncivilised savages”. In fact, the program to confine Indigenous people to certain reserved lands and to cut them off from every element of their traditional ways and beliefs, was called “The Civilisation Policy”, officially implemented by successive government in this country from 1830. The first piece of legislation to bring this policy into effect was not the Indian Act of 1876, as is often cited, but the 1839 Act against Trespass on Crown Lands, which transferred all jurisdiction over Indigenous lands from the people to the Crown.

It is astonishing, in its way, that declarations by Popes more than 500 years ago could still be having such an impact on Canadian society today; that there is still an Indian Act, reserves, conditions of status and non-status, not to mention the dreadful legacy of everything that came from those colonial and imperial documents. Canada has officially adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and this, along with the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, means that an entirely new relationship needs to be developed between Indigenous and Settler communities in Canada. Significantly, this lies solely in the power of the Canadian Government to arrange: as in 1830, so in 2023, that is where the real power lies.


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