Commission on doctrine of discovery asks for more time

The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw, member of the Primate's Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice, addresses members of General Synod 2016. Photo: Art Babych
The Rev. Riscylla Walsh Shaw, member of the Primate's Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice, addresses members of General Synod 2016. Photo: Art Babych
Published July 11, 2016

Richmond Hill, Ont.
After three years of work, the Primate’s Commission on the Doctrine of Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice has asked that its mandate be extended to 2019, and that funding be provided so it may continue its work.

The commission, which has held five meetings since 2013, noted in an interim report to General Synod that due to the “extensive nature” of the tasks it was set, it needs more time to complete its mandate.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, announced at General Synod 2013 that he intended to establish the commission as a way of following up on the church’s decision at its 2010 General Synod to repudiate the doctrine of discovery, and as a way of responding to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

The commission, which includes 18 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members from across Canada, is focused on three interrelated issues: the repudiation of the doctrine of discovery, exploring what reconciliation means and addressing injustices in Indigenous communities.

In the commission’s presentation to General Synod July 10, National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald noted that many non-Indigenous Anglicans are still not sure what the repudiation of the doctrine of discovery really means.

“I think when most people hear ‘repudiation of the doctrine of discovery,’ they think that Indigenous people are trying to make people feel guilty for saying that Columbus ‘discovered’ North America-that’s really not the case at all,” he said, explaining that repudiation is more about recognizing how the doctrine has shaped a whole way of thinking about Indigenous people and the land they live on.

As MacDonald pointed out, the doctrine of discovery was the product of a paternalistic mindset that viewed Indigenous people as too “primitive” to be able to care for their own land. It is a mindset, he argued, that is still very much with us.

“Even many people who are quite sympathetic to Indigenous peoples still think of them as being quite primitive, and that idea is a very destructive one,” he said. “A lot of the havoc that has happened to First Nations peoples, to Inuit peoples, to Métis peoples, has not been out of spite or anger, but out of a sense that this is the best thing that could be done.

“It is very, very important that we understand that the best thing that can be done is to give people the freedom to control and work over their lives.”

To this end, the interim report includes a series of recommendations for how the Canadian church might combat the paternalistic legacy of the doctrine of discovery, and make its stated desire to work for reconciliation with its Indigenous members a reality in the lives of its congregations.

The recommendations range from a request for a full-time, permanent staff person for the commission to network between ecumenical partners and dioceses, to an evaluation of how Indigenous and non-Indigenous government structures recognize the “sacred process of the circle.”

It is also recommended that parishes acknowledge in their signage the Indigenous lands they occupy, study the history of that land, and, if they discover any irregularities in how it was acquired, that they make “consultation and possible reparation” with the appropriate Indigenous communities.

Other recommendations highlighted long-standing concerns over the pay Indigenous clergy receive. Many Indigenous clergy serving in remote communities work without stipend, and although General Synod provides significant funds for Indigenous ministry, there are concerns that this money is not actually reaching Indigenous priests. (Many of the council’s priests are unpaid; 134 of its 295 clergy are non-stipendiary, Bishop Michael Hawkins, Council of the North chair, noted in a presentation to General Synod July 9.)

These recommendations will be considered by the primate, the House of Bishops and Council of General Synod (CoGS), and then be sent to local clergy and congregations no later than July 31, 2017.

“The recommendations dig deeply into our understanding of what it means to be church, what it means to be a follower of Jesus,” said Archbishop (retired) Terence Finlay, co-chair of the commission.

Finlay said he hoped that each diocese would have a “champion” to carry forward the work of implementing the recommendations.


  • André Forget

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

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