Adam Olsen is the MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and a member of Tsartlip First Nation.
I watched Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” closely. It was an emotional week for so many Indigenous people who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church – for residential and day school survivors, and those impacted by intergenerational trauma that has followed, including my own family members.
The Pontiff apologized and begged for forgiveness. He recognized the central role of the institution he leads in perpetuating “cultural destruction.” Then Pope Francis said: “Yes, it was a genocide, yes, yes, clearly. You can say that I said it was a genocide.”
Pause to allow this stark admission to sink in.
The purpose of the trip was the Papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. However, as the trip played out there was a growing focus on and numerous calls to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery – the justification for colonization, land–taking, and genocide in Canada and around the world.
While just a few years ago many Canadians would have not heard about the Doctrine of Discovery, there is an increasing awareness of its importance in our history and how it continues to be a primary obstacle today to justice for Indigenous peoples.
The doctrine originates from papal decrees, issued by the Papacy in the 15th century. It states that if land is not inhabited by Christians, it is uninhabited. The lands can be taken and whoever resides there may be considered, in effect, sub–human and subject to oppression, assimilation and conversion, and perpetual servitude.
In Canada, the Doctrine of Discovery became a foundation for exploration, settlement, colonization and the federal government’s twin policies of assimilation of Indigenous peoples and the denial of our governance and property systems.
The Indian Act – which remains the main law governing the lives of First Nations peoples today is an expression of the doctrine. It’s the instrument that Canada used to establish the residential school system, remove us from our territories, confine us to Indian Reserves, impose a system of administrative government controlled by Ottawa, and undermine our basic human rights.
Through the Indian Act and other mechanisms the racist and pernicious doctrine was used as a weapon of mass destruction against my ancestors by the church and Crown governments. But the effects of the doctrine are not limited to the past. One of the main reasons why the work of justice and reconciliation is so difficult today is because the doctrine permeates our ideas, laws, policies, and institutions.
The enduring legacy of the doctrine is seen in everything from the continuing alienation of First Nations from the economic, cultural, and social benefits of large parts of their territories, to conflicts on the land to Crown legal regimes that fail to recognize and implement Indigenous rights as confirmed by the United Nations to the socio–economic gap between Indigenous and non–Indigenous peoples.
Despites this, the Catholic Church and Crown governments are reluctant to take meaningful steps to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. Crown governments claim the doctrine has little effect today while continuing to leverage the power and authority created by it.
Why the hesitancy to rescind the doctrine, except in symbolic terms? Fear that rescinding the doctrine may mean the issues of title and rights and treaty implementation will really have to advance, and that the self–determination and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples will have to be taken seriously. Fear, also, of a loss of power. But beyond fear, the hesitancy to rescind the doctrine is what it is – a reflection of the endurance of racist and colonial beliefs and attitudes that run deep in our country.
Is it really that hard to rescind beliefs that say another group of people are sub–human and should be enslaved? Apparently for the Pope and Canadian governments it is.
Of course, over the course of his visit, Pope Francis tried to carefully navigate this without causing too much damage, admitting the role of his church in the genocide of Indigenous people in Canada, while not rescinding the doctrine.
So we are left considering what comes next. What must follow his pilgrimage – the acknowledgements and apologies – must be accountability and justice. Reconciliation must be supported by rescinding the doctrine, and actions of redress and reparations.
The Pontiff can start by returning the countless sacred Indigenous items stored at the Vatican, releasing all the records from the residential and day schools, and being accountable for the actions of their leaders and institutions.
Beyond that, there has to be tangible action that addresses the economic, social, and cultural harms done to Indigenous peoples the benefits gained by the Papacy and the Crown through the Doctrine of Discovery and the genocide it has perpetuated.
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