Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 49: Settlement Agreement Parties and the UN Declaration (48-49)

‘A very emotional day’: Pope Francis grants Indigenous Canadians’ request, denouncing doctrine blamed for colonialism

March 30, 2023

Indigenous leader hails Thursday’s statement as ‘a very emotional day for me.’

CBC News: He came to Canada on a pilgrimage of penance to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in running the Indian residential school system. But during a mass led by Pope Francis in Quebec City last summer, Indigenous protesters demanded he take his atonement a step further as they unfurled a banner that read “Rescind the Doctrine.”

On Thursday, the long-standing request from Indigenous leaders, advocates and activists came to fruition.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a declaration and legal concept based on 15th-century papal bulls (that is, official declarations) that authorized Christian explorers to claim “terra nullius,” or vacant lands, based on the notion they had racial and religious superiority.

Indigenous leaders have long said that was a racist and harmful doctrine which formed the basis for colonizers unilaterally claiming sovereignty over Indigenous lands in Canada. The papal bulls were connected to the idea that lands being colonized were empty, when in fact Indigenous Peoples had long called them home.

On Thursday, the Vatican formally denounced the doctrine and said it “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights” of Indigenous Peoples.

It’s something Chief Willie Littlechild, a former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, has been urging for decades. Repudiating the doctrine was in one of the commission’s calls to actions in its 2015 report and an issue he has raised repeatedly in his work with the United Nations in New York and Geneva, which helped establish the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“It’s a very emotional day for me … I know we still have a lot more work to do. But this is a very important milestone in our journey together toward reconciliation,” Littlechild said.

The former grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations first met Pope Francis when he was invited to witness his inaugural mass in 2013 and invited him to come to Canada and apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in running the Indian residential school system. He said he found the pontiff to be “very genuine” and described him as a kind, humble human being.  “When I first heard him say his homily and I closed my eyes, I thought I was listening to one of my elders speak because of the way he addressed the thousands of people at St. Peter’s Square,” Littlechild said. “So it’s a bunch of mixed emotions; one of jubilation, one of great gratitude, one of thanks.”

The repudiation is a powerful recognition of the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples across Canada, especially when it comes to land, said Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta. “The statement from the Pope comes at a good time right now for the Indigenous community … this is going to put more pressure on the courts and the government and the monarchy that’s been utilizing this Doctrine of Discovery to implement their policies and laws,” he said. 

It’s another step toward forcing the Canadian government to honour its treaty commitments and the spirit and relationship they were founded upon, Alexis added. “It’s really unfortunate that as treaty people of this land, we always have to go to court to prove that we are right … and every time it’s been tested in court, our people’s understanding of the treaties has always came out as right,” he said. “It certainly highlights what we’ve been saying all along.”

Donald Bolen, archbishop of Regina, said Indigenous people made it clear that the Vatican needed to address the issue: “The language in those bulls is deeply wounding and problematic, and there was a desire for the Holy See to address it, and they have.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Bolen is a member, said in a statement that it’s grateful Indigenous organizations urged the move. The conference had in 2016 signed a statement calling for the church to reject principles associated with the doctrine.

Bolen said the Vatican’s statement Thursday shows Francis was listening during their meetings with Indigenous representatives, both at the Vatican and throughout his time in Canada.  “I think there’s no doubt that it’s a response given at the request of Indigenous people in Canada,” he said.

The statement from the Vatican, however, said the doctrine is not part of the teachings of the church and the documents were “written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions.” The contents of the bulls, the statement continued, were manipulated for political purposes to justify “immoral acts” against Indigenous Peoples. “It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain” experienced by Indigenous Peoples, and “ask for pardon.”

In its own statement, the Métis National Council said it hopes the church’s next steps will lead “to real, tangible actions that centre the needs and experiences of Métis Survivors and their families.” “The statement of repudiation signals a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to walking together in a good way,” council president Cassidy Caron said in a statement. “The Métis National Council is taking time to fully understand its nuances and potential implications, so that they can inform our collective next steps forward.”

Littlechild believes real change will happen in Canadian courts and said he’s optimistic there is a genuine willingness for it.  “At least in my meetings with lawyers, law societies and judges, they’re very keen on trying to find the proper role that they can play, to advance reconciliation because they see the importance,” Littlechild said.

“And it’s just — how do we do it together? We can do it together and it will work.”

With files from The Canadian Press

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh