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The “Doctrine of Discovery” and Terra Nullius: A Catholic Response

Salt + Light Media

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

This statement was released in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action #49 and is signed by representatives of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, the Canadian Religious Conference, and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. To read the statement in its entirety (which includes an appendix), click here.
The following text considers and repudiates illegitimate concepts and principles used by Europeans to justify the seizure of land previously held by Indigenous Peoples and often identified by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. An appendix provides an historical overview of the development of these concepts vis-a-vis Catholic teaching and of their repudiation. The presuppositions behind these concepts also undergirded the deeply regrettable policy of the removal of Indigenous children from their families and cultures in order to place them in residential schools. The text includes commitments which are recommended as a better way of walking together with Indigenous Peoples.
The Truth and Reconciliation process of recent years has helped us to recognize anew the historical abuses perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in our land. We have also listened to and been humbled by courageous testimonies detailing abuse, inhuman treatment, and cultural denigration committed through the residential school system. In this brief note, which is an expression of our determination to collaborate with First Nations, Inuit and Métis in moving forward, and also in part a response to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we would like to reflect in particular on how land was often seized from its Indigenous inhabitants without their consent or any legal justification. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council and other Catholic organizations have been reflecting on the concepts of the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius for some time (a more detailed historical analysis is included in the attached Appendix).
We believe that now is an appropriate time to issue a public statement in response to the errors and falsehoods perpetuated, often by Christians, during and following the so-called Age of Discovery. In light of all this, as Catholics:
1. We firmly assert that Indigenous people, created in the image and likeness of God our Creator, ought to have had their fundamental human rights recognized and respected in the past, and that any failure to recognize and respect their humanity and fundamental human rights past or present is to be rejected and resisted in the strongest possible way;
2. We firmly assert that there is no basis in the Church’s Scriptures, tradition, or theology, for the European seizure of land already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples;
3. We reject the assertion that the principle of the first taker or discoverer, often described today by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, could be applied to lands already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples;
4. We reject the assertion that the mere absence of European agricultural practices, technologies, or other aspects common to European culture, could justify the claiming of land as if it had no owner;
5. We reject the assertion that Europeans could determine whether land was used or occupied by Indigenous people without consulting those people.
We have read the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s treatment of the Doctrine of Discovery, and understand the connection made by the Report between the injustices committed in relation to land and resources and those committed through the residential school system. The attitudes and policies which deprived Indigenous people of their way of living on the land were closely related to those which assumed that it was good and appropriate to remove Indigenous children from their families and their own cultural system of education and place them in residential schools. We are mindful that Catholics were complicit in these systems. While many of the priests, brothers, sisters and laypeople who worked in the residential schools served with generosity, faithfulness and care, the deeply flawed policies behind the schools, and the abusive actions of some of the personnel among them, left a legacy of suffering.
In addressing this legacy, we echo the words of Pope Francis, pronounced in Bolivia on July 9, 2015: “I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. . . . Like St. John Paul II, I ask that the Church ‘kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters’.” We are well aware that the flawed policy of assimilation has deeply scarred many Indigenous people and has wounded the original relationship of welcome offered by so many of the first peoples of this land to newcomers.
As we ask for mercy from the Father of us all, we pray that we might find appropriate ways to deal with the waves of hurt and pain caused by members of the Catholic community in the past. We also pray that we might be instilled with the courage which filled Indigenous Peoples as they sought to find a peaceful way forward, and the courage which inspired those prophetic voices in the Church who stood in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and spoke out against historical injustices, from Bartholomé de Las Casas, who half a millennium ago proclaimed the dignity and rights of the Indigenous peoples of America, to Pope John Paul II, who recognized and celebrated the dignity and beauty of Indigenous Peoples and cultures. 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.
Walking Forward Together
Here our concern moves beyond specific references to the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, to address other areas which are part of the legacy of colonialism and the residential school system. The Truth and Reconciliation Report stressed that a recognition of past wrongs ought to be accompanied by a practical commitment to heal enduring injustices.
As representatives of the Catholic faithful in Canada, and counting on the full collaboration of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, we appeal to all our Catholic brothers and sisters -- laity, members of institutes of consecrated life and of societies of apostolic life, deacons, priests, and Bishops -- to make their own the following commitments, as recommended by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, in order to continue to walk together with Indigenous Peoples in building a more just society where their gifts and those of all people are nurtured and honoured:
1. Continue to work with Catholic educational institutions and programs of formation in learning to tell the history of Canada in a way that is truthful, ensuring proper treatment of the history and experience of Indigenous Peoples, including the experience of oppression and marginalization which resulted from the Indian Act, the Residential School system, and frequent ignoring or undermining of signed treaties.
2. Work with centres of pastoral and clergy formation to promote a culture of encounter by including the study of the history of Canadian missions, with both their weaknesses and strengths, which encompasses the history of the Indian Residential Schools. In doing this, it will be important to be attentive to Indigenous versions of Canadian history, and for these centres to welcome and engage Indigenous teachers in the education of clergy and pastoral workers, assuring that each student has the opportunity to encounter Indigenous cultures as part of their formation.
3. Call upon theological centres to promote and continue to support Indigenous reflection within the Catholic community, and include this as part of the national ecumenical and interreligious dialogues in which the CCCB is involved.
4. Encourage partnerships between Indigenous groups and existing health care facilities to provide holistic health care, especially in areas where there are significant health needs.
5. Encourage initiatives that would establish and strengthen a restorative justice model within the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates among Indigenous people are many times higher than among the general population, and prisons are not sufficiently places of reconciliation and rehabilitation. Such initiatives include the renewal of the criminal justice system through sentencing and healing circles and other traditional Indigenous ways of dealing with offenders where appropriate and desired by Indigenous peoples.
6. Support the current national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and 4 girls and work with others towards a healthier society where just relations flourish in families and communities, and where those most vulnerable are protected and valued.
7. Support Bishops and their dioceses and eparchies, as well as superiors of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, together with lay Catholic organizations, in deepening and broadening their relationships, dialogue and collaboration with Indigenous Peoples; in developing programs of education on Indigenous experience and culture; and in their efforts to follow up on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, especially those that address faith communities.
8. Encourage Bishops, as well as the superiors of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, together with lay Catholic organizations, to invite a greater acquaintance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in their dioceses and eparchies, in their parishes and educational institutions, and in their communities and pastoral work, thus fostering continuing reflection in local contexts on how various aspects of the Declaration can be implemented or supported.
March 19, 2016 Solemnity of Saint Joseph, husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary Principal patron of Canada

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