Decoding Doctrine of Discovery

Centuries-old papal edicts empowered Europe to colonize non-Christian lands and people

This article was written by Alex Boyd and was published in the Toronto Star on July 29, 2022.

Protesters from northern Ontario hold a banner outside the Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica near Quebec City as Pope Francis celebrates mass Thursday.

Calls for the Pope and the Vatican to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery have been front and centre during Francis’s visit to Canada.

On Thursday, protesters unfurled a giant banner that read, “Rescind the Doctrine,” as the Pope was about the celebrate mass at a pilgrimage site near Quebec City.

So what is the Doctrine of Discovery?

It is a legal concept — based on 15th-century papal bulls, or official declarations — that gave the church’s blessing to European explorers “discovering” and exploiting land in the New World and Africa that was already inhabited by non-Christians.

“Basically, it allows for a European nation to lay claim on any territory that the state discovers, as long as it is uninhabited,” said Tamara Pearl, an assistant professor of law at the University of Alberta.

“It began with this concept of terra nullius, which was Latin for ‘deserted’ or ‘uninhabited’ area, but that concept, without any justification, was expanded to mean uninhabited by civilized peoples.”

Indigenous leaders say the doctrine essentially provided the justification for their land to be taken and for treaty obligations to often be disregarded by European settlers.

There are signs the church may be budging.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the doctrine in 2016, following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report into residential schools. But the Pope himself has not.

Laryssa Waler, a spokesperson for the papal visit, told The Canadian Press on Wednesday that the Vatican has previously said the papal bulls linked to the doctrine have “no legal or moral authority” within the church.

“However, we understand the desire to name these texts, acknowledge their impact and renounce the concepts associated with them,” she wrote in an email.

“Galvanized by the calls of our Indigenous partners, and by the Holy Father’s remarks, Canada’s bishops are working with the Vatican and those who have studied this issue, with the goal of issuing a new statement from the church,” she added.

“Canada’s bishops continue to reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

She also referred to parts of the Pope’s apology that she said “directly condemned” policies linked to the Doctrine of Discovery.

She said that included when he said “many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

Back in the 15th century, the church had a lot more power over European governments, particularly the Catholic ones, as the pope was seen as God’s representative on Earth. What the church said formed part of what would have been considered international law at the time.

In 1455, the pope issued a bull that gave Portugal the right to conquer or enslave any pagan lands or peoples, said Pearl, who in addition to being a law professor is also a Nehiyaw iskwew, or Plains Cree woman, from One Arrow First Nation.

Half a century later, Spain wanted in, and the pope at the time issued another bull giving it the right to conquer as well. Over time, these bulls fed the philosophical and legal idea that European nations had a right to non-Christian lands.

When the French and English first showed up in North America, they were relatively respectful of the first Indigenous groups they met — who, at that point, far outnumbered them.

The first agreements they signed, known as the Peace and Friendship Treaties signed with the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Passamaquoddy First Nations, were seen by the Europeans as deals between equals.

But as more and more Europeans arrived in North America, they started to gain the upper hand, and increasingly disregarded the treaty obligations they had agreed to. The idea that they had a right to these lands was informed by the Doctrine of Discovery.

The idea that Europeans were superior to other groups then paved the way for laws like Canada’s Indian Act, Pearl adds, as well as the residential school system.

In 2016, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the doctrine following the release of the TRC’s final report into residential schools. But the Pope himself has not.

Author: Ray Nakano

Ray is a retired, third generation Japanese Canadian born and raised in Hamilton, Ontario along with his 4 younger sisters. He resides in Toronto where he worked for the Ontario Government for 28 years. Ray currently practises in 2 Buddhist traditions: Jodo Shinshu and that of Thich Nhat Hanh. Ray is passionate about climate action and very concerned about our Climate Crisis. He has been actively involved in the ClimateFast group ( for the past 3 years. He works to bring awareness of our Climate Crisis to others. He has created the website, for tracking climate-related news articles, reports, and organizations. He is always looking for opportunities through the work of ClimateFast to reach out to communities, politicians, and governments to communicate about our Climate Crisis. He is married and has 2 daughters and 2 grandchildren. He says: “Our world is in dire straits. Doing nothing is not an option. We must do everything we can to create a liveable future for our children, our grandchildren, and all future generations.”

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