On March 30, the Vatican repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept from the 15th century that was historically used to justify European colonial conquests.
On July 25, 2022, Pope Francis delivered an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canadian residential schools in Maskwacis. At the time, Indigenous peoples called for the Catholic Church to reject the Doctrine of Discovery.
The Gateway sat down with Matthew Wildcat, a professor in the department of political science and member of Ermineskin Cree Nation, to discuss what the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery could mean for reconciliation in Canada.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: For those who don’t know, can you briefly explain what the Doctrine of Discovery is?
Matthew Wildcat: The Doctrine of Discovery was part of a law between European states during an age of European conquest.
We kind of all understand this imagery of someone planting a flag and laying claim for something. That was a literal international law practice for many centuries. You would claim not just rights to that land, but the entire watershed. A good kind of pop culture illustration of this is the Louisiana Purchase: the United States (U.S.) purchased the western half of the Mississippi Watershed from France.
Q: What does it mean for the Vatican to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery?
Wildcat: It’s hard to say if it will have much legal and political impact. But, what it does indicate for certain is that the Vatican is listening and taking the claims of Indigenous peoples seriously.
In the summertime, when the Pope came, the position of the Catholic Church was that these papal bulls were no longer in effect. There’s no need to rescind [them] because they’ve been null and void for centuries.
At a face-value level, that might be true. But what it doesn’t really acknowledge is that the Catholic Church has a very long history of driving this civilizational thinking of Christians as superior to other peoples all around the world. That’s part of the thinking that’s going on there, is establishing this hierarchy.
If you read their statement in full, at a symbolic level, it is a repudiation of the doctrine, saying the doctrine is not part of the church. But one of the lines says that the Doctrine of Discovery has never been a part of the Catholic Church’s teachings.
At a very technical level, that is probably true. But, it’s not really grappling with the the spirit and intent of what Indigenous peoples are actually asking of the Catholic Church in this instance. What’s really being asked in a much bigger sense, is for the Catholic Church to have acknowledgement and contrition of their role in this kind of dark history that our society today is a product of.
Q: What are your thoughts on the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery?
Wildcat: I think it’s a huge symbolic win for Indigenous peoples. I think it’s something that should be celebrated by everyone. We should all want to be part of societies which address legacies of conquest, dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and racist thinking.
For me, it’s a good bellwether, and it’s historic in the sense that when I teach the Doctrine of Discovery, I have to update the presentation now. For all those reasons, I think it’s something that is great.
At the same time, it would be hard to say the statement from the Catholic Church is more consequential than the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, or the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
At the end of the day, what drives political change is the willingness of people to come together, and to try to take collective action to transform our world. And that only happens when people have the willingness and the fortitude to undertake these long struggles.
Q: What impact did the Doctrine of Discovery have on the colonization of Canada? And how does that impact carry on today?
Wildcat: The Doctrine of Discovery is at the foundation of our society. If you ask the Canadian legal system to explain where sovereignty comes from, it’s hard to tell that story without the Doctrine of Discovery playing a role in some sort of way.
There’s a lot of indication that the Doctrine of Discovery is real. Almost all of our national borders are drawn by the Doctrine of Discovery. Why does the government of Canada pay the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) an exorbitant sum of money in 1869? Well, the reason why is that they’re basically paying HBC to extinguish their discovery claim. HBC got this charter [on behalf of] the King of England. By virtue of Henry Hudson just seeing the land, all of the waters going into that bay were claimed for the King of England.
So the Doctrine of Discovery lays at the foundation of our entire legal system. This is realistically a multi-generational struggle — these things don’t get solved overnight. It’s going to take a lot of willingness and work.
Really, what’s at stake is these kinds of broader questions of decolonization. What will it mean for us, rather than to live in a colonial society, to live in a society that is founded on the root of it when we tell our stories — which is the treaties that Indigenous peoples signed with the Crown and with Canada.
To me, we have to be able to re-narrate our story. A part of that is going to be dealing with real questions of resources and land. Those are going to be very hard fought for conversations.
Q: What does the repudiation mean for reconciliation in Canada?
Wildcat: What their repudiation means is that the Catholic Church is listening and willing to enter into a dialogue. Those are all good signs, when people are not being stubborn about their previous positions.
But, again, reconciliation has been really important because it’s had a real gravitational pull on people’s attention. And then it’s drawn a lot of energy and resources into needing and wanting to address, not only our history, but our present too.
So I don’t know if the Doctrine of Discovery has a humongous effect. But at the end of the day, reconciliation’s power is in its willingness to continue to draw our efforts, attention, and energy into this long-term work of creating a just relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada.
Q: Do you think that this is sufficient action from the Vatican? Or do you think there additional measures that they should be taking?
Wildcat: In the summertime, I was a witness to the apology from Pope Francis. Contrary to a lot of the ink that was spilled afterwards, I was deeply moved by the apology. I think a lot of people who were present at the apology were deeply moved, as well.
But, the reason why it was such a deeply moving experience was not necessarily because of the words being spoken, but the reactions of everyone around them. There was probably 5,000-6,000 people there. I didn’t realize it could become so silent, and it was just really a profound experience.
And when I was walking away from the site, I thought to myself, that was a really nice closure to Indigenous people’s relationship with the Catholic Church. It felt like an end.
And then I get home, and I was doing lots of interviews at the time. I turn on the television and everyone keeps talking about the next steps. And I was like, ‘next step to what?’
I think my position remains the same. I think Indigenous peoples have given the Catholic Church more than enough for them to walk their own path in terms of knowing what they need to do in order to make things right. I don’t think Indigenous peoples need to have a relationship with the Catholic Church anymore.
Yes, there will be researchers who need access to archives. Yes, there’s Indigenous peoples who are staunch Catholics, and those things will be ongoing. But as a whole, as collectives, as nations, I would like to see us largely disengage from our relationship with the church.
Q: During the papal visit last year, Indigenous peoples called on the Vatican to reject the Doctrine of Discovery. Why do you think they waited until now to do so?
Wildcat: I suspect it was the bureaucracy. Even in reading this statement, it reads to me as if it had really competing interests. Again, going back to that line that says the Doctrine of Discovery was never part of the teachings of the church. Like yes, in a technical sense, that’s true. But that’s not what is being asked of you right now.
What’s being asked of you is to account for the church’s role in these long histories of dispossession of Indigenous peoples. If you want to get technical and semantic, you’re not playing fair in that instance. We’re not trying to do a vernacular accounting of who said what, either. We’re talking about real world impacts that Indigenous peoples continue to experience today.
I suspect there’s just a lot of tension in the Catholic Church of what was actually being produced. And, it doesn’t surprise me that this was coming out when Pope Francis was really ill. I partly wonder if he wanted to push it through because he’s concerned for his health. I have a certain amount of trust that Pope Francis was the one who pushed this, but that he was being held back by many others within the church who want to treat it as finished business.
But we can’t, because these are ongoing histories — we live with them. If the Catholic Church wants to have a sincere relationship with Indigenous peoples, they’re going to have to develop their own willingness and own aptitudes for being able to confront these dark histories.