The U.S. Episcopal Church’s (TEC) rejection of a 500-year-old colonial doctrine is a step forward for Indigenous rights, says National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald of the Anglican Church of Canada.
At their General Convention last month, TEC repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, a principle of international law that encouraged Christian dominion over non-Christian lands and people. The doctrine evolved through many papal bulls and charters, but the TEC resolution highlighted a 1496 charter that Henry VII granted to John Cabot before he “discovered” North America. TEC asked Queen Elizabeth II to disavow the doctrine.
“The Doctrine of Discovery is an idea with amazing tenacity,” notes Bishop MacDonald, who helped draft TEC’s resolution. Not only did it provide spiritual justification for the age of exploration, but it has been used in recent U.S. and Canadian policy and court cases, including Nisga’a treaty litigation in B.C. The doctrine is always invoked to uphold the primacy of western governance over Indigenous Peoples.
Often it survives in more subtle forms, Bishop MacDonald says. “When any institution assumes the western standard of development as the sole criteria of success, that almost always is related to an embedded idea of the Doctrine of Discovery.”
Bishop MacDonald said that the doctrine is used to justify the division of Indigenous nations across Canada-U.S. borders—like the split of the Gwich’in Nation between the Northwest Territories and Alaska. It was also the animating idea behind residential schools, which attempted to assimilate Aboriginal children into western society.
At the 2001 Canadian General Synod, the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) urged the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) to root out the Doctrine of Discovery in its policies. No resolution was passed, but the ACC has since worked to prioritize Indigenous self-determination.
One recent example is the sixth Sacred Circle gathering, held in Port Elgin August 9 to 15. Almost 200 Aboriginal Anglicans met to worship, vision, and consider a proposal for a new, self-determining structure in partnership with the Anglican Church of Canada.
Already some Aboriginal Anglicans are moving forward with self-determination. Aboriginal leaders are developing area missions in northern Ontario, northern Manitoba and elsewhere to better serve Indigenous communities across traditional diocesan boundaries.
Nationally, the ACC actively advocates for Indigenous rights. ACC staff from Indigenous Ministries, the Partnerships Department, and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund have lobbied the Canadian government to sign the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which only the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have not signed. (The TEC resolution also called for the United States to sign.)
“Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is, for Christian churches, about the fullness of our gospel, for those who receive it and those who preach it,” said Bishop MacDonald.
But there is still work to do, says Bishop MacDonald. He expects a similar resolution of repudiation to emerge at ACC’s General Synod in 2010.
“The church still has lingering traces of the Doctrine of Discovery,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine anything that would have a greater negative impact on the credibility of our gospel. It really has proven to be the source of endless confusion, turmoil, and obstruction to the basic message and not just among Indigenous Peoples but among the larger population as well, because it’s a corrupting idea. It’s an idea that distorts humanity, distorts peoples’ ability to see.”
“We’re really called to be relentlessly courageous for the truth and ruthless in applying it to our lives, and especially our institutions,” he said. “We should be very suspicious of ideas that can become shorthand and let so much evil in the back door. The Doctrine of Discovery was one of those ideas.”
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