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A Doctrine and a Royal Proclamation, Part 1 (October 12, 2018)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Orange Shirt Day. It was a day to commemorate survivors of residential schools. I told Phyllis Webstad’s heartbreaking story about having her orange shirt taken away from her on the first day of school at the St. Joseph Mission school.

Her story is only one of thousands of similar stories of children being ripped from their families and sent to residential schools like the St. Joseph Mission in Williams Lake or the St. Eugene Mission School in Cranbrook. Aboriginal children were sent to residential schools to “beat the Indian out of them” (to use John A MacDonald’s memorable phrase).

Indian Residential Schools date back to the 1870’s, and the last one closed in 1966. More than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly taken from their families and placed in these schools. They were forbidden to speak their language or to practice their own culture.

While some of these children had positive experiences at residential schools, most suffered emotional, physical, sexual, and mental abuse. The results of the trauma of this attempt at forced assimilation are still felt today in families where children never learned how to be parents because they had no parents from whom they could learn.

Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of the Department of Indian Affairs from 1913–1932, was responsible for the expansion of the residential school system. He made it mandatory for all native children between the ages of 7 and 15 to attend one of Canada’s Residential Schools. “I want to get rid of the Indian problem. I do not think as a matter of fact, that the country ought to continuously protect a class of people who are able to stand alone… Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that is the whole object of this Bill.”

One of the underlying reasons for this attitude can be found in the Doctrine of Discovery. This Doctrine was first stated in an edict issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, the year after Columbus arrived in what is now known as North America.

The edict stated that any lands not inhabited by Christians were empty, unowned, and available to be discovered, claimed and exploited by Christian powers. The Pope called these lands “terra nullius” — “nobody’s land”, and it was applied to North America.

It is estimated that about 100 million Indigenous Peoples inhabited the Americas at that time — about one–fifth of the human race. They had been living on the land since time immemorial. But because they were not “Christians”, they were deemed to not be human.

As a result, the colonial powers—England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands—were able take over and profit from their lands. They accumulated massive wealth by extracting natural resources from the land, and essentially stealing the land from under the feet of the indigenous people.

The Doctrine of Discovery denied the essential humanity of the people who were living here. According to the Pope’s edict, the land was considered empty. There were not human beings here.

The Doctrine of Discovery laid the groundwork for the racism and injustice that continues to be current to this day.

I am proud to be part of the Anglican Church of Canada which officially repudiated this Doctrine in 2010. Our church denied it had any validity. At the same time, we officially apologized for our part in the crisis of the Residential School system.

In 2012, the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues also denounced the doctrine as “the shameful root of all the discrimination and marginalization indigenous people face today.” The Forum noted that in addition to legalizing the theft of the land, the doctrine also “encouraged despicable assumptions: that indigenous peoples were ‘savages’, ‘barbarians’, ‘inferior and uncivilized’.

It’s important for us to know about this history. It explains some of the underlying prejudice that still exists about indigenous peoples.

But here’s the surprising thing. On 26 June 2014, in a unanimous 8:0 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada made clear that: “The doctrine of terra nullius (that no one owned the land prior to European assertion of sovereignty) never applied in Canada, as confirmed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763.”

I’ll have more to say about that next week.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt