Ted Quewezance, former chief of Keeseekoose First Nation and a residential school survivor. Photo by Michael Swan

Indigenous demand Pope Francis revoke Doctrine of Discovery

  • March 31, 2022

First Nations delegates who met with Pope Francis today are still awaiting word on whether the Pope will renounce the Doctrine of Discovery.

Indigenous Canadians, their political representatives, scholars and writers from within Indigenous communities and legal experts have spoken for years about the wrecking ball effect of Western assumptions that Indigenous lands were terra nulius, open to be claimed by Western explorers in the name of Western empires.

Ever since the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the delegations to meet with Pope Francis this week, the Assembly of First Nations has made no secret of its expectation that the Pope will renounce the corrosive legal doctrine that fueled Europeans settling Canada.

“I am asking the Holy Father to renounce and formally revoke the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery and replace it with a new papal bull that decrees Indigenous peoples and cultures are valuable, worthy and must be treated with dignity and respect,” Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald told The Catholic Register in an email shortly after the trip to Rome was first announced.

In Rome, First Nations delegation leader and Dene chief-elect Gerald Antoine followed through.

“We need to right the wrong,” Antoine told reporters.

That sentiment is shared by residential school survivors across the country.

The sincerity and effectiveness of any apology rest on the Church clearly repudiating any notion that Europeans could legitimately claim Indigenous lands or take on a mission of civilizing Indigenous people, residential survivor Ted Quewezance told The Catholic Register the night before the First Nations delegation met with Pope Francis.

“For me personally, if he apologizes I accept it. But if the papal bull isn't dealt with, the apology doesn't mean nothing,” Quewezance said. “Because we're humans. We got things we were given by the Creator — our languages. We were given our pipes. We were given our directions. We were given our ceremonies…. We were given our songs. That's our identity as Indian people.”

For Quewezance — who spent seven years in the Anglican-run Gordon School in Punnichy, Sask., then four years in the Oblate-operated St. Philip’s Residential School three hours northeast of Regina — the mindset behind the Doctrine of Discovery lives on and undercuts the basic truth that Indigenous people are humans, entitled to human rights.
“This is not a political issue. This is a human issue,” he said.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been repeatedly repudiated in Church teaching since the 16th century. Almost as soon as the conquest of the Americas began, missionaries and theologians recoiled with horror at the results of giving European kings and queens the right to extend their sovereignty into new lands.

At the same time, however, the Church relied on the governments of countries created by the Doctrine of Discovery to advance its missionary goals. The residential schools are a prime example. Co-operation with a government program of assimilation bolstered Catholic missionary work as Canada extended its sovereignty north and west.

Papal teaching against the doctrine began in 1537 and was been taken up again in the 20th century by Popes Paul VI,John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.

A thorough repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery by all the churches is one of the 94 Calls to Action which came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“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,” reads Call to Action #49.

The dispute is over whether or not the Catholic Church really has definitively and finally repudiated an idea so wound up in how the Church expanded into the Western Hemisphere. It’s not whether the Church has taught that empire and conquest were wrong, not whether the Church has officially turned its back on the idea that European culture represents civilization and other cultures are merely tribes in need of Western enlightenment. It’s whether that new teaching has been received.

“Right now there's a lot of denial across Canada with parishioners,” said Quewezance. “A lot of denial by government. So it's about choice.”

Catholics at every level in the Church have to decide whether they’re on the side of empire or on the side of the once-conquered Indigenous people. Quewezance believes a full papal apology will create obligations on the Church in Canada.

“The Pope, if he's in the mode of apologizing, he is going to be delegating his authority down to the bishops and to the parishioners,” he said.

Canadian bishops and Canadian parishioners will have to recognize the importance of inherent rights granted to Indigenous people in treaties, in the Constitution and in their own Church teachings, Quewezance said.

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