Movement works for repeal of Papal Bulls of Discovery

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church_silhouette_194202Justice Murray Sinclair, the Ojibway chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is considering endorsing a growing movement among Canada’s Indigenous communities to call upon the Vatican to repeal the Papal Bulls of Discovery, which granted explorers in the 15th century complete impunity in their dealings with First Nations.

The decrees granted Catholic explorers “full and free power, authority and jurisdiction of every kind” to “conquer the New World and the ‘heathen’ Aboriginals that call it home.” It was, they said, the explorers’ duty “to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion” and granted them the right to enslave and kill any Aboriginal people who resisted.

According to the United Nations and human rights activists, the Papal Bulls legitimize the treatment of First Nations people as “less than human.” They also are part of historical disputes between the federal government and Native communities. A 2009 UN investigation concluded that these proclamations are “at the root of the violations of Indigenous peoples’ human rights…” and a direct cause of the “mass appropriation of the lands, territories and resources of Indigenous peoples.”

When resolving modern disputes over land, legal rights of outsiders over First Nations territory still sometimes reference the Papal Bulls of Discovery in their claims to Native land.

Sinclair says that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is considering backing calls for the Catholic Church to repudiate the orders. The commission is examining the Catholic edicts from 1455 and 1493 as part of its impact analysis of Canada’s Indian residential schools. A growing number of activists are appealing to the Vatican to help establish a new relationship with Aboriginals based on equality and respect.

Keith Matthew, a former chief of the Simpcw First Nation in British Columbia, is one activist building support for the repeal of the bulls. He recently helped lobby for the passing of a resolution by the Assembly of First Nations that supports their eradication.

“The papal bulls put us in a position no better than animals,” Matthew told the National Post. “We know better today. We’re just as civilized and human as anybody else in this world. It’s really about righting a historic wrong.”

Still others, such as Hayden King, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Indigenous Governance, feel that a simple repeal would not go far enough to establish true reconciliation between the Canadian government and First Nations. King argues that it would be more meaningful for the Crown to recognize that its so-called sovereignty over Native land is based on the “fairy tale” that Aboriginal people are not human. “Unless there was corresponding action, it would seem kind of hollow,” King added.

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