The Doctrine of Discovery

A 500-year-old colonial idea that still affects Canada’s treatment of Indigenous peoples

By Travis Tomchuk

Tags for The Doctrine of Discovery

Two people in braids and ribbon skirts raise fists and hold a large cloth banner reading “RESCIND THE DOCTRINE” on the steps of an enormous cathedral.

Photo: AP Photo, John Locher

Story text

The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal and religious concept that has been used for centuries to justify Christian colonial conquest. It advanced the idea that European peoples, culture and religion were superior to all others.

The Doctrine of Discovery was set out in a series of declarations by popes in the 15th century. These declarations (known as “papal bulls”) provided religious authority for Christian empires to invade and subjugate non‐Christian lands, peoples and sovereign nations, impose Christianity on these populations, and claim their resources. These papal bulls were written at a time when European empires were embarking on widescale colonial expansion.

A manuscript written in Latin with a large, decorative first line of text.

This 1455 version of the papal bull Romanus Pontifex was issued by Pope Nicholas V. Among other colonizing powers, it grants Portugal’s King Afonso V the right to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans.”12

Portuguese National Archives Torre do Tombo, PT/TT/BUL/0007/29²

Why is it important?

The Doctrine of Discovery is still an important legal concept in Canada today even though it was written hundreds of years ago. Both French and English colonial powers in what would later be known as Canada used the Doctrine of Discovery to claim Indigenous lands and force their cultural and religious beliefs on Indigenous peoples. Once Canada was created, the Doctrine of Discovery influenced the imposition of national, colonial laws on Indigenous peoples. This is because it denies the validity of longstanding systems of Indigenous governance and sovereignty.

The Doctrine of Discovery and human rights

In the Canadian context, the Doctrine of Discovery has led to the seizure of Indigenous lands and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. As colonial settlement spread over the territory that became Canada, many Indigenous peoples entered treaty relationships defining how they would share the land with the newcomers. Influenced by the absolute claims to power and authority expressed by the Doctrine, Canadian law interpreted these agreements as surrendering title and control, despite these concepts being largely alien to Indigenous cultures. The Canadian government has also claimed title and control over unceded Indigenous lands. This was demonstrated in the 2014 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia3. The ruling found that the Tsilhqot’in had indeed demonstrated their Aboriginal title to their land. This meant that they had “an exclusive right to use or occupy the land for the nation’s collective benefit.”4

However, the ruling also said that Aboriginal title could be defied by the Crown (either the provincial or federal governments) if it could justify such action.

The racist assumption of superiority and dominance embodied in the Doctrine of Discovery underpins many aspects of Canada’s colonial history, including the Indian Act, the reserve system, the Indian residential school tragedy, and the Sixties Scoop.

A crowd of people standing outside, some holding signs reading “Facta non Verba: Deeds not words” and “You promised $30 million. Was it a lie?”

Protesters at a papal event in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Activists called on the pope to pay restitution and rescind the Doctrine throughout his 2022 visit to Canada.

Photo: Canadian Press, Nathan Denette

Calls for the Doctrine of Discovery to be rescinded

During Pope Francis’ 2022 visit to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools, there were calls from Indigenous people for the pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. Kate Gunn, a partner at the law firm First Peoples Law, stated that this would be an “important way of beginning to acknowledge the way the Doctrine has been used as a tool to justify the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their lands for centuries, and beyond that as a tool for enabling cultural genocide in the form of residential schools.”5 Pope Francis made no such declaration, and this centuries‐old racist concept continues to affect laws, attitudes and relationships in Canada today.

Ask yourself:

  • How might rescinding the Doctrine affect the government’s relationship with Indigenous peoples?

  • What old colonial ideas and racist stereotypes continue to influence us in Canada today?

  • Where and how did you learn about the history of colonization in Canada?


References

  • The Bull Romanus Pontifex (Nicholas V), January 8, 1455. https://caid.ca/Bull_Romanus_Pontifex_1455.pdf.
  • “Papal Bull ‘Romanus Pontifex’ of Pope Nicholas V, by which he granted to King Dom Afonso V and to Prince Henry the Navigator, and to all the kings of Portugal and their successors, all the conquests of Africa with the islands in the seas adjacent to it, from Cape Bojador and No and the entire coast of Guinea, and that they may order the construction of churches in them, whose patronage shall remain with him.” Bulas, mç. 7, no. 29 PT/TT/BUL/0007/29. Image courtesy of the ANTT.
  • Supreme Court of Canada, Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, Case no. 34986, 26 June 2014, https://scc-csc.lexum.com/scc-csc/scc-csc/en/item/14246/index.do.
  • Brett Forester, “Doctrine of Discovery is a ‘legal fiction,’ but revoking it won’t herald immediate changes, experts say,” APTN, 29 July 2022, https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/doctrine-of-discovery-is-a-legal-….
  • Forester.