Indigenous Affairs: What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

BACKGROUNDER: Indigenous Affairs: What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

The Doctrine of Discovery includes all doctrines, policies and practices based on advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences. The Doctrine of Discovery has an enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress (article 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples).

As with the discredited notion of "terra nullius", the doctrine of "discovery" was used to legitimize the colonization of Indigenous peoples in different regions of the world. It was used to dehumanize, exploit and subjugate Indigenous peoples and dispossess them of their most basic rights. Based on such fictitious and racist doctrines as "discovery" and "terra nullius", European nations were relentless in their determination to seize and control indigenous lands. Papal bulls, such as Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery, and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Such ideology led to practices that continue unabated in the form of modern day laws and policies of successor States. This Doctrine is the foundation of laws.

As recently as September 2011, the UN Human Rights Council by consensus "condemned" doctrines of superiority "as incompatible with democracy and transparent and accountable governance".

In regard to the doctrine of "discovery", the same condemnation must now take place within states. While churches have begun to repudiate this racist doctrine, states around the world have not.

Leading cases in Canada, such as St. Catherines Milling and Lumber Company v. The Queen, have relied upon early U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Johnson v. McIntosh that are based on the "discovery" doctrine. As in many countries worldwide, Canada’s laws and policies constitute a continuing misinterpretation of international law relating to the doctrine of "discovery."

We must request that Canada, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, examine state history, laws, practices and policies and report on their reliance of doctrines of superiority, including "discovery", as the foundation of state claims of sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.

We must urge Canada, in conjunction with Indigenous peoples, establish national plans of evaluation and work, with clear timelines and priorities, to eradicate from existing laws and policies any remnants of doctrines of superiority, including "discovery", as a basis for the assumed sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and their lands and resources.

For more information, please contact GPC Indigenous Affairs Advocate Lorraine Rekmans at