The Vatican’s historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery – Now it’s Canada’s turn

March 30, 2023, marked the momentous repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by Pope Francis.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a colonial legal tool that asserted European conquest over the lands of North America. It sought to legitimize the archaic views and authority that European ideals were superior to those of the Indigenous inhabitants who occupied the lands for thousands of years.

The Vatican repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery

On March 30, the “Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the Doctrine of Discovery” was issued by Pope Francis which renounced the 550-year-old Doctrine of Discovery. The statement affirmed that it does not reflect the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that the papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous Peoples:

“The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

The announcement also references the Church’s solidarity with Indigenous People and its support for the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”):

“The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of Indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their dignity, language and culture.”

Not only does the statement comply to the principles of UNDRIP, but it comes in response to the TRC’s call to action #49:

“We call upon all religious denominations and faith groups who have not already done so to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”

There has been some criticism that the Church ought to have “rescinded”, not merely “repudiated” the doctrine. To “repudiate” is to dispute the validity of a law, order or agreement and to refuse to comply with the legal obligations. To “rescind” is to revoke, cancel or repeal a law, order or agreement.

A look ahead

The UNDRIP Act became law in June of 2021, which is said to provide for the respect and recognition of the human rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Preamble in the UNDRIP Act states that the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.

Building on the momentum of the statement from the Catholic Church, the Government of Canada could go further and formally repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

What are the implications for Indigenous People?

While not directly apparent, there could be many implications of the Vatican’s position statement.  We might see the following happen:

  • increased calls for the Vatican to fully rescind the Doctrine of Discovery and for all levels of governments in Canada to fully repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery;
  • pressure for the principle of terra nullius to be dismantled;
  • an increase in Indigenous decision-making as it relates to UNDRIP; and
  • an evolution in jurisprudence as it relates to Indigenous rights cases.

The recent announcement of the Catholic Church may contribute to reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples. The colonial doctrine being renounced marks the understanding that European superiority at the time of contact was racially motivated and an unjust demonstration of control. It answers the call that many Indigenous groups have been voicing for decades. Now the pressure will be turned to the federal government to announce its own repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

If you or your organization would like more information about the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and its impacts, please contact a member of our MLT Aikins Indigenous practice group to learn how we can help.