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Indigenous people hold a banner that reads "Rescind the Doctrine" as Pope Francis presides over a mass at the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre in Quebec on July 28, 2022.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

The Vatican met one of the long-standing demands of First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups in Canada by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery and the associated papal decrees that had been used to legitimize the colonial-era seizure of Indigenous lands.

The Vatican’s statement brought mixed reaction in Canada, where Indigenous leaders and activists have long pressed the Catholic Church to disavow the doctrine and reconcile for its participation in the residential school system.

“This is a step in the right direction, but this is a thousand-mile journey,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald. “These issues with the doctrine go back 500 years. To undo the damage they have caused will take time.”

During his visit to Canada last July, Pope Francis came under pressure from Indigenous groups for a formal repudiation of the 15th-century decrees, known as papal bulls, which gave European powers the backing to take new territories so they could be turned into Christian lands.

Francis never spoke directly about repudiating the bulls even if he apologized profusely for past abuses, including the establishment of the largely Catholic residential school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes. On the flight back to Rome from Canada, he referred to the policies of Indigenous disenfranchisement and forced assimilation as “genocide” but did not say when the papal bulls might be torn down.

In a joint statement issued Thursday, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, and the Dicastery for Culture and Education said that the papal bulls had never been expressions of Catholic faith.

“The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ is not part of the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the dicasteries said. “At the same time, the church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples. The church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples.”

Ms. Archibald said she was gratified to see the repudiation but said that parts of the statement amounted to institutional buck-passing. “Across the Earth, we find persecution and oppression of Indigenous peoples and the church has to take responsibility rather than try and push responsibility on to governments,” she said in an interview.

She wants the Pope to issue a new papal bull stating that Indigenous culture, languages and traditions are sacrosanct.

“We need a new papal bull, we need action, we need land back,” said Ms. Archibald. “There has to be a recognition that the wealth that’s being generated here needs to be fairly shared with First Nations and with Indigenous people.”

The Vatican statement came a day after Pope Francis was sent by ambulance to Rome’s Gemelli Hospital for what the Vatican called treatment for a respiratory infection, raising concerns about the health and staying power of the 86-year-old Argentine pontiff. On Thursday, the Vatican said, “the clinical picture is progressively improving and the planned treatments continue,” though Francis was to remain in hospital for a few days.

In an interview, Cardinal Czerny said Francis was aware the dicasteries’ statement would be released Thursday. There was no suggestion from the Vatican that it was done at his request to bolster his legacy. The Pope has hinted several times that he would retire, as his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI did, if he became incapable of performing his duties for health reasons.

The push to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery gained momentum in 2015, when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission included the demand among its calls to action.

The Pope heard countless objections to the doctrine during his Canadian tour last year, none more visible than the “Rescind the doctrine” banner unfurled by Sarain Fox and Chelsea Brunelle, Batchewana First Nation cousins, during his visit to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica outside Quebec City.

On Thursday, Ms. Fox said she became emotional as she read the Vatican’s statement. “It felt like we were part of a big movement that made this change happen,” she said in an interview. “That said, I don’t want to bask in this moment too long because more action is needed for this statement to mean anything.”

The Vatican statement is largely symbolic, according to Cody Groat, a Mohawk professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Western Ontario, but it will assist Indigenous groups challenging Crown sovereignty in legal arguments and treaty negotiations.

“The entire structure of colonialism can be challenged more easily,” he said.

Cardinal Czerny said that the Holy See and the Canadian and American bishops really wanted this statement, “which regrets what happened, to help healing and reconciliation with the Indigenous peoples.”

The dicasteries closed their statement calling for a greater implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of Indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture,” they said.

Cardinal Czerny said, “Going forward, the Catholic Church aims to continue its pursuit of justice. This necessitates improving relationships with Indigenous communities, listening to the needs of survivors and being ready to engage in solidarity with Indigenous communities as they strive to address inequalities, racism and systemic injustices.”

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