We need more than an apology from the Pope – abandon the Doctrine of Discovery


This column is an opinion of Tahieròn:iohte Dan David, an award-winning journalist based in the Mohawk Territory of Kanehsatake. For more information on CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

This week a group of natives is in the Vatican seeking an apology from pope francis for what the priests and nuns of the Catholic Church have done for generations of children, families and communities in residential schools across Canada.

But what does an apology actually mean for Indigenous peoples?

Children were forced to go to Catholic schools whether their parents had converted to Catholicism or not. An apology from the pope could reassure Catholic survivors. But many have left the church and may never return. Still others have tried to rebuild their lives by turning to traditional beliefs and ceremonies.

Many Indigenous peoples in Canada did not attend Catholic residential schools and are non-Catholic. For them, what is the problem? An apology means the Church could finally pay its share of the largest class action settlement in Canadian history. But even an apology does not guarantee that they would pay.

Popes have made many excuses in the past: for African slavery, sexual abuse and (not quite an apology) a request for forgiveness for “sins” against European Jews, women and Roma. Last year Pope Francis apologized to the Greek Orthodox Church.

Other than an apology for residential schools, what else could delegates ask for? I suggest they ask the pope to remove some papal bulls. Six years ago, Indigenous groups from all of the Americas does exactly that. They could ask again, even ask for a new papal bull that recognizes the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Papal bulls are declarations or decrees issued by the Vatican. In 1961, Pope John XXIII issued a papal bull calling for a Second Vatican Council. He wanted the church to align with the realities of the 20th century. Historically, papal bulls granted Henry VIII the right to marry his brother’s widow, defined papal infallibility, and authorized torture and slavery.

Two papal bulls, one in 1455 and another in 1493 shortly after Columbus “discovered” the Americas, granted explorers the right to claim all of the continents of Africa and the Americas.

Scholars combine these two papal bulls under one title: the Doctrine of Discovery.

This doctrine gave a legal pretext, a fictitious foundation, to colonization from yesterday to today.

70 exchanges. 15 indigenous communities. 11 words with the power to hurt. In this first episode, host Kaniehti:io Horn decolonizes the word “discovery”. Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier, even Leif Erikson all claimed to have found a “new” land. But by the time they reached the shores of the Americas, millions of people had already been living here for at least 11,000 years. The Doctrine of Discovery – a papal bull from the 1400s – justified the dispossession and displacement of First Peoples from their Lands. Together, we will explore words that help us rewrite our history today. Telling our Twisted Histories is a podcast series made by Indigenous people for anyone who wants to start decolonizing their vocabulary – and their stories – one word at a time. Telling Our Twisted Histories is a Terre Innu and CBC co-production. 21:55

Indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas have been deemed unworthy of European legal protections. The doctrine declared these lands no man’s land, lands belonging to no one. For the colonizer, the laws, the governments, the native religions did not matter. The lands and resources under the feet of the Aboriginal people no longer belonged to them, but to the colonizer.

The influence of these two papal bulls can be seen in the Indian Act of Canada, the reservation system, land claims and residential schools.

For example, First Nations do not “own” their reserves. They exist on “Crown lands” at the pleasure of the Crown, the Government of Canada. All of the pass system right down to the banning of traditional ceremonies and the denial of basic legal rights, it all goes back to the Doctrine of Discovery.

But society has changed. The simpler days of colonialism are fading as Indigenous peoples struggle to have their collective rights recognized. Yet the federal government clings to the ideas of the Doctrine of Discovery and finds itself increasingly confused by its own Indigenous policies.

On the one hand, Canada claims global “sovereignty”, including “territorial sovereignty”. Yet courts in Canada increasingly recognize the pre-existing or residual rights of Indigenous peoples to self-government and unceded territory.

Even a casual observer can see that Canada is playing a twisted game using a stacked deck with Indigenous rights at stake. The aces in this stacked deck are those papal bulls. Without them, the ideological house of cards is collapsing.

No one expects Canada to dismantle itself and return to pre-colonial conditions. But people expect this country to recognize its past, confront its racist underpinnings and respect the UNDRIP.

To begin with, it must disavow this doctrine of discovery as the basis of its national policies and laws. Decolonization, true reconciliation, demands nothing less. Canada must understand that residential schools are only part of the story.

Canada needs to understand where it all began — in Rome, nearly 500 years ago, with the writings of a pope.


Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports. A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional referral and crisis services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.


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