Church’s knowledge of Doctrine of Discovery ‘woefully inadequate’

Primate's commission members (L to R): The Rev. Ryscilla Shaw, Archbishop Terrence Finlay, Archdeacon Sidney Black, the Rev. Andrew Wesley, Verna Firth, and Dean Jonas Allooloo. Photo: André Forget
Primate's commission members (L to R): The Rev. Ryscilla Shaw, Archbishop Terrence Finlay, Archdeacon Sidney Black, the Rev. Andrew Wesley, Verna Firth, and Dean Jonas Allooloo. Photo: André Forget
Published August 28, 2015

The General Synod that met in Halifax in 2010 passed a resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, but the Anglican Church of Canada is still struggling to break free from the legacy of institutional racism that resulted from this ideology.

This was a common observation made by members of the Primate’s Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice to the National Anglican Sacred Circle held last week in Port Elgin, Ont.

“Our colonial church is woefully inadequate in terms of its knowledge of the Doctrine of Discovery and the implications of it,” said Archbishop Terry Finlay, co-chair of the commission, who took part in a panel discussion. “Part of [the commission’s] mandate-and what we will have to recommend will be influenced by this-is the education of our own institution.”

The Doctrine of Discovery, a concept in international law that provided justification for European possession of already inhabited lands in North America and around the globe, has its origin in a number of papal bulls, or official pronouncements, from the 15th century. The doctrine posited that a Christian power could legally lay claim to any lands populated by non-Christians.

The doctrine has been the driving force behind some of the church’s worst abuses of Indigenous people, said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald.

“It was the Doctrine of Discovery, and the ideas around it, that led to the residential schools because it said that the people were so savage and so primitive that they would be better off being schooled and separated from their families,” said MacDonald.

The only way to move beyond the doctrine is to address the many ways it continues to shape people’s thinking, he said. “When we talk about repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, we’re talking about all the aspects of it,” said MacDonald. “The way it’s been used in theology, the way it’s been used in teaching, the way it’s been used in controlling people’s lives, and sadly, in the way the church has been organized.”

The panel’s moderator, Verna Firth, from Inuvik in the diocese of the Arctic, solicited responses from the panellists regarding the doctrine, its ongoing legacy and how its repudiation is part of the church’s work of reconciliation.

A consensus quickly emerged that while the Anglican Church has taken steps toward addressing its colonialist past, much remains to be done for reconciliation to be fully realized.

Tracing the historical legacy of the doctrine, Sol Sanderson, former chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, argued that the doctrine’s cardinal sin was having stripped away Indigenous people’s control over their own lives.

“Because we lost that degree of control, it resulted in all those symptoms that you’re trying to treat-high suicides, mental, physical and sexual abuse, high unemployment, poor health conditions, you name it,” he said. Indigenous people need to take back control of their lives and rebuild their families and communities, he added. “That’s what [the church] needs to talk about.”

Archdeacon Sidney Black, ACIP co-chair and archdeacon of native ministries for the diocese of Calgary, followed up on this point by noting that reconciliation-while a good, biblical word-implies a “parity at the level of power,” insofar as “both sides that are estranged from each other have some equality.” However, the doctrine has put Indigenous people at a major disadvantage in terms of power, he said.

“I personally feel that it’s more than reconciliation-it’s about conciliation,” said Black. “I think that conciliation, when you’re on the same level, is our vision and our hope. And we will continue as First Nations people, as Inuit people, as Métis people, to hold that in front of us. The Doctrine of Discovery has not allowed us to do that.”

Following the panel’s presentation, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, was asked to offer a few words in response.

In addition to stressing the importance of the points made by the commission and outlining some of the steps the Anglican church has already undertaken toward reconciliation, Hiltz held up the 94 Calls to Action released earlier this year by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a challenge for the church to meet.

The Calls to Action are about moving Canada and its churches past simply acknowledging its dark history of colonial violence, to addressing the effects that violence has on the present, said Hiltz.

“The next phase of reconciliation has to be marked by this commitment to justice, by this commitment to addressing the injustices that Indigenous people continue to bear,” said Hiltz. And as the church addresses these injustices, he said, “I would hope that in that commitment people would be able to see that the apology is sincere, that the path or reconciliation is one to which we are deeply committed.”

Other members of the panel included Dean Jonas Allooloo of St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit, in the diocese of the Arctic; Canon Laverne Jacobs, elder of Walpole Island First Nation, in the diocese of Huron; the Rev. Andrew Wesley, assistant curate at the Church of the Redeemer, in the diocese of Toronto; and the Rev. Riscylla Shaw of Christ Church, Bolton, in the diocese of Toronto.

Not participating in the Sacred Circle panel but part of the primate’s commission are the Rev. Lily Bell of the diocese of Caledonia; John Bird, former General Synod co-ordinator of Aboriginal Justice and Right Relations; Jennifer Henry, executive director of ecumenical justice organization KAIROS; Ellie Johnson, former General Synod director of partnership; Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh; the Rev. Stanley McKay, former moderator of the United Church of Canada; Graydon Nicholas, former lieutenant governor of New Brunswick; Stuart “Bud” Smith, of the Anglican Parishes of the Central Interior; and the Rev. Amos Winter, of the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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