Vatican’s disavowal of Doctrine of Discovery a good step but ‘fundamental change’ still needed: Manitoba elder

The Vatican’s repudiation of what’s known as the Doctrine of Discovery is welcome, but there is still a long way to go toward reconciliation with Indigenous people, says a Manitoba residential school survivor.

“On the surface it sounds good, it looks good … but there has to be a fundamental change in attitudes, behaviour, laws and policies from that statement,” Ernie Daniels, a former chief of Long Plain First Nation, told host Marcy Markusa in a Thursday interview with CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio.

On Thursday, the Vatican formally repudiated the doctrine — a legal and religious concept that has been used for centuries to justify colonial conquests and form the basis of some property law today.

But it’s only a step toward the significant change that’s needed, Daniels said.

“Worldwide, bureaucracy has to change, politics have to change, the churches have to change, the corporate world has to change towards Indigenous people, because there’s still a mentality out there — they want to assimilate, decimate, terminate, eradicate Indigenous people.”

Those attitudes are more subtle than they used to be, but they remain, he said.

In its statement, the Vatican said the 15th-century papal bulls, or decrees, that form the Doctrine of Discovery did not reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous people and were manipulated for political purposes by colonial powers “to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples.”

They have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith, the Vatican said.

Indigenous people have been demanding for decades that the Vatican formally rescind the decrees, which provided the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity.

The impacts of that doctrine are still being felt today, said Daniels, including the effects of unrepatriated land and the residential school system. The last of the residential schools in Canada closed in 1997, but the abuse students endured within them has had lasting physical and mental effects for generations.

During his visit to Canada last year, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous Peoples for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system, which forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and subjected many to abuse. He was also met with demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.

Daniels was part of a delegation that met with the Pope at the Vatican in Rome last April, and then personally met with the pontiff during his tour of Canada.

While he would have liked to see the Pope take a stand against the bulls then, Daniels said Thursday’s gesture can begin the process for more healing.

“This is kind of recognition, acknowledgement, and some sort of apology towards us,” he said. “A lot of [residential school] survivors have passed on. Not much of us left.

“For those [that are left], I’m happy for them. Thank you to the Pope.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at