Dehcho First Nations seek repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery

Ahead of an anticipated papal visit in late July, the Dehcho First Nations called on the Vatican and Canada to reject the international law widely considered a legal justification for colonialism.

The law, which first appears in a papal bull issued by the Catholic Church in the 15th century, defines land unoccupied by Christians as “vacant” and seizure of those lands to be “discovery.”

It has been used by Canadian courts as recently as 2011 and by then-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the United States in 2005, and forms the legal basis for what is considered to be Crown land.


“The Dehcho First Nations, representing eight Dene First Nation communities and two Métis communities in the NWT, now call on the Vatican, the Government of Canada and the Crown to clearly and unequivocally reject and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and acknowledge what we all know to be true: that the land now known as Canada was not vacant or ungoverned when Europeans arrived and that it was actually governed by sovereign nations with our own institutions and laws,” a Dehcho First Nations news release stated on Friday.

In 2012, the United Nations called the doctrine “shameful.” It has been repudiated by the Presbyterian, Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran churches.

Following the Pope’s historic apology for the actions of some Catholics in April, delegation leader Gerald Antoine spoke of the importance of the issue.

“One thing that is quite clear: when you look at residential schools, if you trace the seed back to where it started from, you will find the Doctrine of Discovery,” he told Cabin Radio at the time.


“The apology is not good unless the seed is destroyed. So the real need is to have the Doctrine of Discovery revoked completely. That is one specific part of the equation that needs to be done away with.”

The Pope is expected in Canada from July 24 to 29.