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Pope asked to renounce Doctrine of Discovery – what is it?

Amid Pope Francis' "penitential" journey in Canada, Indigenous people are witnessing what the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has called "a significant gesture and a historic step to fulfilling reconciliation." 

Aside from admitting the Catholic Church’s responsibility in the designation of residential school systems in Canada, much of the Pope’s penitanceis related to a Catholic edict that was first issued more than 600 years ago, and went on to become deeply rooted in Canadian legislation and effectively justified the nation’s colonial history.

It’s called, “The Doctrine of Discovery.” 

According to a 2018 report by the AFN, titled "Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery," the church maxim "emanates from a series of Papal Bulls (formal statements from the Pope) and extensions, originating in the 1400s. [It] was used as legal and moral justification for colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations, including First Nations in what is now Canada."

Kate Gunn, a lawyer at First People Law -- a Vancouver-based law firm dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of Indigenous people across Canada -- told the doctrine was historically used to justify the assertion of sovereignty and ownership of land by European colonial powers over Indigenous people in North and South America.

"The roots of [the doctrine] are deep," she told in a phone interview Thursday. “Because it was such a fundamental part of how and why Europeans were able to internally justify their ability to take ownership and control over [North American] land, it’s the root of what Canada is as a country.”

Gunn added that, "so many of the issues that we see with Indigenous people today are a result of [the doctrine]."

According to Indigenous Corporate Training Incorporated (CTI), a training organization that guides professional relationships between businesses and Indigenous people in North America, there is one major reason the Doctrine of Discovery continues to impact First Nations communities: it has neverbeen officially renounced by the head of the Catholic Church. 

"[The doctrine] remains the basis for Canadian law and as such continues to impact Indigenous Peoples," CTI wrote on their website, referring to the trauma of residential schools and the criminalization of Indigenous customs during the Indian Act.

The Center for Environmental Legal Studies says the Doctrine "legitimizes the continuing suppression of indigenous communities and culture" and "makes the co-stewardship of nature and natural resources by indigenous peoples impossible during a time when development is diminishing biodiversity and contributing to climate change."

Last year, the Canadian government overtly rejected the doctrine, passing Bill C-15, which aims to harmonize Canada's laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The government called the doctrine: “racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

Pope Francis issued an apology for the traumas of residential schools on Tuesday in Edmonton, but Indigenous groups and advocates including the AFN and CTI are still calling for him to repudiate the doctrine.

"We are optimistic that the Holy Father will take the next step and apologize to all Indigenous peoples," AFN wrote on their website.

Gunn thinks Pope Francis could use his visit to Canada for an important first step -- acknowledgement.

"It is really important for the Pope to acknowledge the role of the Doctrine of Discovery in colonialization and in the harm that has been done by the Catholic Church," Gunn said.

"That acknowledgment will be an important step towards moving towards true reconciliation. Not just for the history of Canada but for the issues that Indigenous peoples face today." 


If you are a former residential school survivor in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

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