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'A humongous symbolic victory': Indigenous people react to Vatican rejection of Discovery Doctrine


Last summer in Maskwacis, Alta., Pope Francis formally apologized for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system.

At the time, as he made his way across Canada, there were also calls for him to repudiate the "Doctrine of Discovery," which are theories backed by 15th-century "papal bulls" used in an attempt to legitimize the colonial-era seizure of Native lands.

In July in Quebec, Indigenous protesters unfurled a large banner calling for Pope Francis to rescind the doctrine. And it was also an ask in the Truth and Reconciliation report eight years ago.

On Thursday, the Vatican formally rejected the "Doctrine of Discovery," stating it "did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples."

"It's historic. It's a humongous symbolic victory, I think, for Indigenous peoples who have pushed for this," said Dr. Matthew Wildcat, a member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation and an assistant professor at the University of Alberta.

"It is hard to put a finger on what the actual effect will be."

The head of the Indigenous Reconciliation Group believes the Pope's journey through Canada likely played a role in Thursday's development.

"This may be as close as it gets to [an] apology, but I also think there's probably some serious resistance in the Vatican, which might be a worry," said CEO Rose Lemay, from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

"This is a difficult learning journey when one has been told through the centuries… 'We're doing the right thing.' It takes a while to come around to the fact that, actually, no this was not a good thing. There was nothing good about it."

The statement from the Vatican asked for forgiveness, but also suggested the doctrine has been misunderstood.

It said the documents had been "manipulated" for political purposes by colonial powers "to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities."

The statement, from the Vatican's development and education offices, said it was right to "recognize these errors" and acknowledge the terrible effects of colonial-era assimilation policies on Indigenous people.

“Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others,” Pope Francis is quoted in the statement.


The development came as a shock to many, so Wildcat was not the only one Thursday absorbing the news and wondering what comes next.

"Maybe it's a step, but we don't know how that step is going to be looked at. Is it a big step? Is it a small step? Again, it's about the action not just the words," said Lloyd Yellowbird with Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society in Edmonton.

A statement from the Confederacy of Treaty No. 6 First Nations said the Vatican's repudiation was "welcome" but "we are taking time to fully understand the implications of this decision."

Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, who walked beside the Pope along the shores of Lac Ste. Anne in July, said the doctrine was "born out of greed and arrogance of European powers."

"The cruel legacy of this doctrine persists. Governments and monarchies continue to wield it as a weapon, infringing upon our sovereignty, exploiting our resources, and denying us our rightful place as equal partners in shaping the future," he wrote on Thursday.

Archbishop Richard W. Smith of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton said he was "very, very pleased" to read the statement from the Vatican.

He believes the Pope listened during his visit to Canada and hopes Thursday's development leads to healing and a "deeping of the relationship" between the church and Indigenous people.

"It repudiates any concepts that are associated with it, like cultural superiority or colonial mindset, because the church finds those abhorrent," he told CTV News Edmonton.

"This is exactly what we need to hear right now. This is what Indigenous peoples have been asking for. And I'm very hopeful that this now will be one more step that will enable us to continue walking together in a good way."

With files from The Associated Press Top Stories


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