Indigenous Organizations React to Vatican Repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery

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Pope Francis - REUTERS/Tony Gentile
Pope Francis - REUTERS/Tony Gentile

OTTAWA – The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is hailing the Vatican’s recent move to formally repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which paved the way for colonization of Indigenous lands across Turtle Island. The 15th-century papal bulls still form the basis of some property laws in Canada. AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald welcomed the Vatican’s statement, stating that it reaffirms the church’s magisterium as not being part of the papal bulls that granted such ‘rights’ to colonizing sovereigns.

The AFN and other groups have been calling for the documents’ rescission for years. The message was delivered to Pope Francis directly by an AFN delegation led by Northwest Territories Regional Chief Gerald Antoine during a visit to the Vatican in 2022. Regional Chief Antoine expressed gratitude for the efforts of leadership past and present in sharing the message of the harmful effects of the Doctrine.

Despite this significant milestone, the National Chief emphasized that the Vatican still has a long way to go in addressing its role in the forced assimilation of Indigenous children, families, and Nations. National Chief Archibald would like to see a new, formal papal bull that affirms Indigenous Sovereignty and control over lands, resources, governance, culture, and language. She also emphasized that the decree should acknowledge Indigenous traditions and ways of being as valuable, worthy of dignity and respect, and essential to humanity’s continued evolution and growth.

Leaders of National Indigenous Organizations will be holding a press conference in Ottawa next week to provide further comment on the Vatican’s announcement. National Chief Archibald stated that she would remain cautious and critical of the Catholic church but remain committed to healing, emphasizing that only with truth, transparency, and accountability could they walk the healing path forward together.

The AFN’s long-standing advocacy for the rescission of the Doctrine of Discovery has been a significant step in addressing historical injustices and upholding Indigenous sovereignty. The Vatican’s repudiation of the Doctrine marks a significant victory in their efforts to reclaim their land, culture, and traditions.

Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum has issued the following statement on the Vatican’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery:

“I am encouraged that the Vatican has finally answered the calls of generations of Indian Residential School Survivors and Indigenous leadership and moved forward with the repudiation of these decrees.

The acknowledgement of these colonial-era assimilation policies will not change the harm done to generations of our people, but we hope it signals a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to continue to work with us in a good way toward healing and reconciliation.

While largely symbolic, the Church’s rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery provides an opportunity to confront historic injustices inflicted on the original inhabitants of Turtle Island.

The only sequential acceptable step now is full revocation of the Doctrine in order for meaningful change to be made in the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and settler governments.

We now await a response from Canadian governments and authorities, as this Doctrine used to justify colonial conquest is still cited in property laws today.”

A legal concept dating back to the 15th century, the Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify racist and unjust colonial policies that contributed to the assimilation, genocide, and disposition of Indigenous Peoples in Canada and the United States.

Indian Residential School Survivors, their families, and anyone requiring emotional support or assistance can contact:
• IRS Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066 (toll-free)
• IRS Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419
• NAN Hope 1-844-NAN-HOPE (626-4673)

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