Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen delivers a lecture as part of St. Jerome’s University’s Lectures in Catholic Experience in Waterloo, Ont., Sept. 27. Photo from Facebook

Academics must take back history, Bolen says

  • October 5, 2023

Archbishop Donald Bolen charged young Canadian academics with a call to action to be critical contributors to the telling of history surrounding Canada’s past relations with its Indigenous people.

The Regina archbishop, during his guest lecture at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont., on Sept. 28, said academics need “cannot leave it to the media to be the critical contributors to the telling of history so there is a task for us.”

“I think it is important for the academic community to take seriously its role in the doing of history in the rethinking and retelling in an appropriate and responsible way of what happened at the time of colonization, the Indian Act and in residential schools,” said Bolen. “There is a temptation right now to leave it to the media to do the telling of history. The narrative that the media gives us of residential schools reverses the story and the story needed to be shaken up deeply.”

Bolen’s presentation, part of St. Jerome’s University’s Lectures in Catholic Experience series, was titled The Wounds of the Past, Truth-telling and a Future of Hope: The Doctrine of Discovery and the Path of Reconciliation. The bishop examined the Canadian Catholic Church’s broad efforts to reconcile with the Indigenous peoples of this shared land, and he analyzed the contemporary Church’s response to the papal bulls of the 15th century and the Vatican’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery on March 30.

He began his talk by relaying his recent experience attending an event organized by Keeseekoose First Nation in Regina about truth-telling. The room was adorned with a banner, which bore the subjects that require the spotlight of truth. Residential schools and the Indian Act indeed were scrawled upon the sign. What particularly stood out to Bolen was the number of contemporary challenges that were illuminated.

“We saw on that banner health issues, intergenerational trauma, homelessness, addictions, incarceration, racism and suicides,” said Bolen. “It is important to name, and this truth-telling gathering named that this is the legacy of colonization, the Indian Act and residential schools to assimilate Indigenous peoples — to disenfranchise them.”

Apologizing for and rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery, which empowered American settlers to claim sovereignty over land deemed vacant (terra nullius), fulfilled the 49th call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was a call to “all religious and faith groups who have not done so to renounce and discredit concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.”

Bolen gave an overview on one of the papal bulls backing the Doctrine of Di­scovery, Dum Diversas, which was penned in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V. The pope declared in this text that “we grant you by these present documents, with our Apostolic Authority, full and free permission to search out, capture and subjugate the Saraceans, the pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be.” The bull also authorized the conquerors to become masters of their land and to “reduce their persons into perpetual servitude.”

Less than 100 years later, Bolen stated that Pope Paul III ushered in a “huge shift” in the view of Indigenous peoples and their rights through the papal bull Sublimis Deus, released in 1537.

The pontiff forbade enslavement in this document, writing: “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

Bolen said Pope Paul III’s words signified “a change in political policy and a change in instruction for other nations.” It represented a “start of a tradition for defending the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The 486 successive years following Sublimis Deus have been complex and has seen promising developments and periods of strife in the relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples. The statement by the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development that renounces the Doctrine of Discovery was seen as a huge step forward, but the conversations and actions of truth-telling must march forward, said Bolen.

Bolen mentioned plans are in the works for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences to arrange a symposium with Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars to deepen historical understanding about the Doctrine of Discovery.

“Much needs to be reflected upon,” said Bolen. “To what extent is the Doctrine of Discovery embedded in American law and Canadian law? To what extent is it embedded in systemic injustice toward Indigenous peoples? That is a big question and it opens us to the question of what we should do and how should we be engaged.”

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