Doctrine of Discovery

The racist doctrine of discover continues to have major impacts in Canada today

March for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015

Doctrine of Discovery

CFSC (Quakers) Indigenous Rights Icon SmallCFSC produced the following video of a panel discussion we participated in at the closing events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of CanadaDismantling the Doctrine of Discovery: The Road to Reconciliation.

For simple and easy-to-share information about this important issue download Frequently Asked Questions about the Doctrine of Discovery (PDF).

The doctrine of discovery comes in particular from a series of Papal Bulls (formal charters from the Pope) and extensions, originating in the 1400s. These were used as legal and moral justification for colonial powers to take away lands from sovereign Indigenous nations during the European “Age of Discovery.” Christian explorers claimed lands that they “discovered” for their Christian monarchs, who could exploit those lands, regardless of the original inhabitants.

The doctrine is racist. It is based on the notion of the racial superiority of European and Christian peoples and individuals. This false belief has been used to dehumanize Indigenous peoples, and to exploit, subjugate, and dispossess them of their most basic rights. This ideology has led to practices that continue through modern day laws and policies in Canada.

The doctrine of discovery is still used in interpretations of law by Canadian courts in modern times (in 2012 the BC Court of Appeal referenced the doctrine of discovery while interpreting their decision in Tsilhqot’in. The decision was later unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada).

The Supreme Court stated in its decision, “The doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation (1763).” Just as the Supreme Court concluded that the Royal Proclamation confirms that the doctrine of terra nullius never applied in Canada, the same must be true in regard to discovery.

Many faith-based groups are examining discovery and repudiating it. The World Council of Churches has done so. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has called on all faith bodies to repudiate the concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples.

When this issue came to the national gathering of Canadian Friends in 2013, we were in deep and immediate unity that the doctrine of discovery must be repudiated by Quakers as a religious community, as well as by the government of Canada.

Read the full statement from Canadian Yearly Meeting, prepared by Canadian Friends Service Committee. You can also read further background materials about the doctrine of discovery.