The sword of the Royal House of Avis on a stylized cross decorates the 56-meter high Monument to the Discoveries by the Tagus river in Lisbon, Thursday, March 30, 2023. 

Vatican rejects Doctrine of Discovery after years of pressure from Indigenous activists

The 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery provided the legal basis for the colonial-era seizure of Native lands. Sociology professor Cora Voyageur, who is also a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, joined The World’s host Carol Hills to discuss the significance of the Vatican’s repudiation of the doctrine.

The World

The Doctrine of Discovery, the15th-century Catholic doctrine that fueled colonization in the Americas and Africa, was rescinded by the Vatican on Thursday. 

The doctrine decreed that when a nation declares it has discovered new land, it directly acquires rights to that land. The move is especially significant to Indigenous peoples around the world who have had their lands seized.

The Vatican finally responded to decades of Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the doctrine.

Cora Voyageur, a sociology professor at the University of Calgary in Alberta, and also a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, discussed the significance of this decision with The World’s host Carol Hills. 

Carol Hills: This 600-year-old doctrine has finally been rejected. What does that mean to you? 
Cora Voyageur: Well, it means that there is an acknowledgment that there was a harm done and that there is action being taken to acknowledge the harm.
On a personal level, what does it feel like?
I’m happy about it. I see this as a very long journey, and this is one step along the way to reconciliation and changing the policies that can help enrich the lives, you know, social, political, economic, cultural lives of Indigenous people around the world whose lives have been altered by these foundational policies on which my own country, Canada, is built. 
Now, Pope Francis visited Canada last summer, and during one appearance, two Indigenous women unfurled a huge banner behind him that read “Rescind the Doctrine.” How did that moment reverberate in Canada and worldwide?
I was at the first appearance at Maskwacis, and there were people there that were quite emotional in their pleas to the pontiff. We had been asking for the Doctrine of Discovery to be rescinded for quite some time. So to find out that it has happened today is really a good thing and really a happy day for me.
You yourself have been kind of the victim of the Doctrine of Discovery. I mean, directly. You grew up and were forced to go to residential schools. So it had a sort of direct impact on you. 
Yes, it did. And with the policies in Canada, with residential schools, upwards of 90% of the children that were in residential schools were First Nation children. Children between the ages of 5 and 14 were required to go to residential schools. And if the parents didn’t send their children to residential schools like the older children, then the younger children could also be taken and the parents could be jailed.
Do you see a link between the Doctrine of Discovery and the residential schools? 
Absolutely. It basically gave license to governments and religious orders to basically steal Indigenous children.
Now, having the Catholic Church formally rescind this Doctrine of Discovery, it’s not just an issue for Canada. How did this doctrine legitimize colonial-era seizure of native lands around the world? 
Well, it was foundational. And the idea, if you look at Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden,” it was an idea that based on skin color and location of origin, that the land was just there for the taking. It had a, you know, a really harsh impact on the lives of Indigenous people around the world. And there was a saying that the sun did not set on the British Empire and the whole idea about going to a place that is new to you, the people there, it’s not new to them. So this discovery of new lands, well, it wasn’t new land. It was land that was already occupied by Indigenous people. And for me, in my community in northeastern Alberta, our historical record goes back 13,000 years. We’ve been on that land for a long, long time, long before, you know, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the European explorers came to Canada. 
I’m curious how your own community, your own first nation, the Athabasca Chipewyan, how things have changed for you in your lifetime in terms of recognition of rights, recognition of land? 
It has been a gradual process, but the interesting thing about Canada and North America was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and that was essentially the first recognition that Indigenous people had prior use and occupancy of the land. We also know that in Canada, with the Constitution Act 1982, that Indigenous people were given Aboriginal title and Aboriginal rights in Canada. We are, I believe, the only liberal democracy in the world that has this in our Constitution. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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