Denouncing the Doctrine of Discovery

On a damp September day in 1984, thousands of people from across the territory gathered in Liidlii Kue, or Fort Simpson, to catch a glimpse of the holiest of globe-trotting visitors.

As the time of arrival approached, the fog thickened until a wing and a prayer was little match for the weather, and the plane carrying Pope John Paul II changed course to Yellowknife.

Over a radio broadcast from the capital, the Pope promised to return. Three years later he made good, flying north for a brief stopover at the end of a trip to the U.S.

“We were never considered human beings; because of that doctrine, we were always considered as animals.” 

Chief Gerald Antoine of Liidlii Kue remembers the joy when the Pope finally made it: “We really began to pull together as a community, and we opened our community to have our visitors come in…It was remarkable.”


To celebrate the 30th anniversary next year, Antoine plans to invite the current Pope back to his community, an idea that was endorsed by the Dene Nation during a leadership meeting in Yellowknife last week. This time around, however, that invitation comes with a demand: that Pope Francis officially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

It’s a move that has been recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was addressed earlier this year by the country’s top Catholic bishops in an official statement: “We acknowledge that many among the Catholic faithful ignored or did not speak out against the injustice, thereby enabling the violation of Indigenous dignity and rights. It is our hope and prayer that by naming and rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind what is commonly called the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and terra nullius, we may better recognize the challenges we face today so that we may overcome them together.”

For the Dene Nation, though, that apology must come straight from the top: “The Catholic bishops [in Canada] are saying they agree with that, you have to get rid of that,” says Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus. “But the problem is, it came from the Pope, and the Pope today, Pope Francis, needs to be given instructions to get rid of that idea.”

Priests, bishops and thousands of Northerners gather in Fort Simpson in 1984 for the Pope’s visit, cancelled last minute 

So what is the Doctrine of Discovery?

It might seem ambitious, asking the most powerful religious figure in the world to issue an official declaration on the matter. And with other ongoing issues, like the Catholic Church wriggling out of an agreement to provide money to Indian Residential School survivors, the condemnation of a 500-year-old set of teachings may seem of marginal importance. For the Dene Nation, however, such an announcement is closely tied to their decades-long struggle for sovereignty.

The Doctrine of Discovery, and the attendant idea of terra nullius, or nobody’s land, is not strictly speaking a single thing; nor is the history of the idea straightforward in theory, theology or application by the state. But essentially the idea is this: that sovereignty and land ownership were transferred to European Christians simply by dint of their arrival in the “New World.” The fact that people had lived in this so-called terra nullius for thousands of years mattered little.

“We were never considered human beings; because of that doctrine, we were always considered as animals,” is how Chief Felix Lockhart of the Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation puts it. 

The “Doctrine of Discovery,” though not a term used until the 19th century,  is rooted in a series of Papal Bulls — official declarations by the Pope; most importantly, one from 1494 that was written shortly after Christopher Columbus’ early voyages to the Caribbean. The bull, called Inter Caetera, granted Spain dominion over all lands west of a meridian in the centre of the Atlantic that were not possessed by a Christian ruler. Although clearly an aspirational document — Spain had little more than a toehold on the island of Hispaniola at the time — the bull provided the theological and legal justification for subsequent atrocities committed by the Spanish and other European powers during their conquests in the Americas.  

In their recent repudiation of the doctrine, the Canadian bishops argue that “the ‘grants’ accorded to Portugal and Spain were one tool the Popes used to attempt to ensure that the European expansion, which they could not prevent, would be as peaceful as possible and at least include Christian missionaries to provide for the spiritual needs of the native inhabitants.” However, they admit that, “In spite of all this, we cannot ignore that these Bulls do appear manifestly unjust to us today: they make no mention of the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and they appear to transfer the ownership of land to European nations without the consent of those living on that land, even if Bulls like Inter Caetera admit of varying interpretations.”

Forty years later in 1537, Pope Paul III issued a very different bull: “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.”

Pope John Paul II addresses followers in Fort Simpson in 1987

This was the papal view reiterated by John Paul II in 1987 in Liidlii Kue: “That has always been the Church’s position…My presence among you today marks my reaffirmation and reassertion of that teaching.”

Theologically speaking, this may be the case. However, as the Canadian bishops admit, “In many cases, European nations and colonists simply took what they could and attempted to justify it afterwards. The concepts of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and terra nullius are among these justifications.”

Claiming Canada

The Doctrine of Discovery can be seen at play throughout Canadian history. Take for example the 1496 charter that Henry VII gave to John Cabot, giving him “licence to set up our aforesaid banners and ensigns…acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered…”

“Fifteenth-century papal bulls were the legal foundation upon which North America was colonized.”

Or look at Martin Frobisher who, when exploring Hudson Bay in 1577, believed he was taking possession of the land simply by piling up some stones: I “marched through the Countrey with Ensigne displaied…and now and then heaped up stones on high mountaines, and other places, in token of possession.”

Whether or not these, and countless other acts of imperial dispossession, were the direct result of papal doctrines, the theological justifications given in the early years of European expansion lurks in background. As Dr. Jennifer Reid wrote in a 2010 article in The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, “Fifteenth-century papal bulls were the legal foundation upon which North America was colonized. The basic principle of the doctrine they set down — that Indigenous peoples had no sovereign rights in relation to their own land — remained unaltered through centuries of international jurisprudence.”

Even the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which is often seen as confirming Aboriginal rights to occupancy and land use, made it clear that sovereignty, in a robust sense of the word, had already been transferred to the British Crown.

“Lands occupied by Native peoples were defined in the Proclamation as ‘our dominions,’ despite the fact that no Indigenous nation had relinquished its title,” Reid writes. “Furthermore, the Crown promised to protect Native rights of occupancy and land use, thus subsuming Native title within the territorial sovereignty of the Crown.”

This was the thinking when the Hudson’s Bay Company sold Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1870, and again when Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 were signed; sure, to make its claims “legal,” Canada had to extinguish certain rights by signing treaties (something which many Dene say was not the intention of the treaties, anyway), but Canada’s right to do so was never in question. It was not until the 1970s that Canadian courts began to acknowledge (with some trepidation) that perhaps Aboriginal rights don’t accrue because of proclamations by European monarchs; perhaps they existed prior to European conquest, theology and legalism.   

“The Doctrine of Discovery is not simply a relic of colonial history,” Reid writes. “It is the legal force that defines the limits of all land claims issues to this day, and it was integrated into North American law from an early period.”

Drummers perform at mass in Fort Simpson during the planned visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984, cancelled due to weather

Hope for repudiation

Whether or not Pope Francis accepts Chief Antoine’s invitation, the idea of an official repudiation does not seem that far fetched. “This Pope Francis, he’s different than other Popes that have come along,” says Elder Francois Paulette. “He’s not as colonial thinking as popes before. He’s more open.”

Francis’ visit to Bolivia last summer made that clear: “Colonialism, both old and new, which reduces poor countries to mere providers of raw material and cheap labor, engenders violence, poverty, forced migrations and all the evils which go hand in hand with these,” the Pope said. 

“Some may rightly say, ‘When the Pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the Church.’ I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

Perhaps such comments already amount to a papal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, but no doubt a more direct statement would be appreciated, especially if made next year in Liidlii Kue. 

Ultimately, what’s at stake is more than a simple symbolic gesture. As Herb Norwegian, Grand Chief of the Dehcho First Nations, puts it: “It’s not going to be easy for us to outright and publicly say we forgive; there needs to be repatriation, there needs to be giving back and healing those wounds.”

“Churches own large tracts of land — they’ve held this land since the days of the treaties — so if the churches want to go back and they want our forgiveness, some of the things they should be doing as a good sign of wanting our forgiveness is to give back all those lands — all of those lands they hold in these communities — give [them] back to the First Nations people.”


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