Category Archives: White Supremacy

The Doctrine of Discovery Moves from Religion to Politics and Law

The Doctrine of Discovery originated as policy in the 15th century as a result of Papal Bulls (decrees) to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain.  According to According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations this amounted to a “virtual declaration of war against all non-Christians and an official sanction of the conquest, colonization, and eventual non exploitation of non-Christian people and their territories.”

Yesterday, I promised that I would opine on the historic comments of Pope Francis in Quebec last week.  I have decided to make a few more comments on the Doctrine of Discovery today before I do that tomorrow.

As a result of a conversation yesterday, with a friend who is a professor of Religious studies, and clearly knows a lot more about the Doctrine of Discovery than I do, and says that the Doctrine of Discovery was repudiated by Catholic Popes and church leaders more or less from the beginning. However, the attitudes that underpinned it, namely white supremacy and its corollaries, dominated western thinking for centuries. Those attitudes allowed the people from Europe to believe they had an inherent right, if not a religious right, to dominate the people of what they referred to as the New World. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging,

 

“The main principles of the discovery doctrine was accepted by European colonizers and remained an unspoken assumption until the famous U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall noted that the European colonizers had assumed dominion over North and South America during the Age of Discovery, and that the indigenous peoples had lost their rights to absolute sovereignty, but they did retain the right of occupancy in their own lands. In addition, Marshall claimed that the United States of America, upon winning it independence from Great Britain, simply assumed this right of discovery and the authority of dominion from the British. Succinctly put, the colonizing powers assumed the right to claim possession of the Americas by virtue of their belief in the superiority of Christianity and its adherents . In turn, the US Supreme Court ruled that they had inherited their right of possession, by way of the British, from the doctrine of a fifteenth century pope who was attempting to curry favour with the King and Queen of Spain.”

 

The basis of the policies that flowed from the doctrine were based on a fundamental assumption of European superiority over indigenous people. That attitude poisoned the relationship between Europeans and Indigenous peoples for centuries even if Popes repudiated it.  The religious leaders could not erase the attitudes of assumed European supremacy.

 

Doctrine of Discovery: As Vile as Vile can Be

People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer.  I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.

 

First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide.  I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.

I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope.  Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because  all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.

To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.”  The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.

This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.

The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants  in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.

The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as  letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official.  Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.

The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.

France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.

After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.

In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.

The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.

Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock  Indian Reservation.

The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”

Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada  made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt and the War on Truth

 

This is what Hannah Arendt said in her magnificent book published in 1951 called the Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more than adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experience deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda—before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world—lies in the its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.”

 

This is exactly what Hitler did, Putin did, and Trump is trying to do right now. It is interesting to me that National Review the American conservative journal ranked it #15 in the on its list of the greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century.

 

It is astonishingly to me how Arendt could have been writing about Trumpsters in the early 1950s. It is so incredibly prescient. These words can be applied precisely to them decades after the words were written, showing once again that Arendt was the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th century.

Hannah Arendt paid attention to the people who supported totalitarian movements. She did not dismiss them like Hillary Clinton did. This is what she said,

“Totalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization. Masses are not held together by a consciousness of a common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals.”

 

For example, with Donald Trump many people, like me, were often surprised that the masses would support him because it wasn’t really in their best interests. He obviously didn’t really care about the masses. He carried about his rich buddies (to the extent that he cared about anyone). The masses are the people who don’t fit into any organization. His fans just wanted to join a group that would wreck things. It was the same in Nazi Germany where, we should never forget, Nazis were originally elected to power. Arendt noticed this about Nazi Germans and Communists. As she said,

“It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.”

 

In other words the Nazis and Communists found supporters among the “basket of deplorables” of Europe. Just like Trump did in the US in 2016. No one paid attention to these people before in Germany, Russia or the US. That made things convenient. These people were never involved in or even cared about politics before. As a result, the demagogues could use entirely new methods of political propaganda. As Arendt, said they had “indifference to the arguments of their opponents.” Just like the Trumpsters.

As a result the mass movements of Europe put themselves out of the political system and against the political system. As a result

“they found a membership that had never been “spoiled” by the party system. Therefore, they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistent preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.”

 

Again this could not have described Trump and Trumpsters better. Remember they were equally hostile to Republicans and Democrats. Trump only used the  Republican party  because it was convenient. He was never a Republican. He was never a conservative. His ideology, again to the extent he had one, was fascist racism  (white supremacy) and nationalism. As Arendt said,

“Thus when totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country”…

 

Once again Arendt prophesied Trump and his supporters in astonishingly specific terms.

This is a book worth reading!

Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”

 

Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Facing the Uncomfortable Truth

 

Whenever I want to learn something important about race I turn to James Baldwin or Toni Morrison.  James Baldwin said this among, his many significant pronouncements about race:  “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

 

In the US and Canada conservatives are doing to the best they can to help their followers avoid looking at the truth. In the US they do this in many ways, including their opposition to any criticism of their beloved country by people of color. For example, they have launched a concerted campaign against something they refer to as “critical race theory.”  That is nothing else than a technique that permits interested people to look behind the facades and  myths surrounding race. That can reveal some ugly truths that people in power–in the comfortable pews–don’t want revealed. Such people also do it by decrying what they feel is a negative view of their country promulgated by the New York Times 1609 project which again attempted to look at slavery in particular and race in general based on actual history, and not just the comfortable legends of white supremacy.

In Canada conservatives, among others, try to avoid looking at the truth by curtailing any criticism of people considered by them to be sacred, as evidenced by monuments around the country. The sacred include John A. MacDonald, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth. By definition, conservatives like things the way they are. Many of them are people of privilege who have benefited from the status quo.

 

Recently, in Manitoba, Conservative Premier Brian Pallister, fell into this trap when we ignored the sins of European settlers and concentrated instead solely on their ability to “build.” Here is what he said,

“The people who came to this country, before it was a country and since, didn’t come here to destroy anything. They came to build. They came to build better. To build, they did. They built farms, and they built businesses. They built communities, and churches too. And they built these things for themselves, and for one another, and they built them with dedication and with pride.”

 

Later the Premier claimed that he was complementing both settlers and indigenous people, but I don’t see that in his statement.  It might have been in his imagination.  When he later “apologized” for his statement, he did so in a clumsy fashion. He said, at a news conference he called, “I feel awful about the reaction and the misunderstanding I created with my comments.” He never admitted his statements were wrong because of what they ignored.  Pallister did not catch on that people did not think they misunderstood him. They heard him and were insulted at his casual dismissal of the offences committed by the settlers and only saw what they had built without paying attention to what they destroyed. Pallister was blinded by his own privilege in failing to understand this.

His statements made in the context of current discussions of the horrific abuse at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools is a sad reflection of white ignorance about their own white supremacy and privilege which for more than a century in Canada has given them a pass. They have been blinded to their own privilege.  Their current conservative supporters want to continue that pass. They want to ignore the truth.

Truth can set you free, but ignoring it, as Baldwin said, can turn you into a monster without you realizing it.

 

Moving On

 

Like Manitoba’s Judge Brian Giesbrecht, many non-indigenous people urge Indigenous people to move on. I am sure many would like to do that. But we need to move on to serious action. We need to move away from white privilege. We have to stop being bystanders. Not many of us can be a hero, but we can stop acquiescing to racism. And Indigenous people need to move on to important current issues, but the rest of us need to get out of their way. As well, I think it is up to us who have benefitted from this system for decades that must move on first.

Not many of us are up to being heroes. I know I am not. But we can speak up. We should not let racist comments from people we know pass without challenge. We need to speak truth to ignorant privilege. We might have to pay a price for that. After all, many people don’t want to hear such messages. It could cost us. But we at least have to do that. Dissenters  may pay a price while bystanders can be comfortable.

Spiritual Violence

 

As I have said earlier, the entire system of residential schools had a rotten foundation. That foundation was the unjustified assumption that Europeans were superior to the savages of the North American continent. Nothing built on such a foundation could stand. And it didn’t. In a nutshell that is white supremacy.

The Christian religion was an important part of this system and when it came to the residential schools of Canada it got pretty ugly. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) reported,

“Christian teachings were a fundamental aspect of residential schools. Aboriginal children were taught to reject the spiritual ways of their parents and ancestors in favour of the religions that predominated among settler societies. As their traditional ways of worshipping the Creator were disparaged and rejected, so too were the children devalued. They were not respected as human beings who were equally loved by the Creator just as they were, as First Nations, Inuit, or Métis peoples. Rather their Christian teachers saw them as inferior human beings in need of being ‘raised up’ through Christianity and tried to mould them into models of Christianity according to the racist ideals that prevailed at the time. The impact of such treatment was amplified by the federal laws and policies that banned traditional Indigenous spiritual practices in the children’s home communities for much of the residential school era.”

 

In this way religion was weaponized by Canada against the Indigenous people of Canada. The TRC went so far as to call this “spiritual violence.” The TRC defined spiritual violence as follows:

“Spiritual violence occurs when

  • a person is not permitted to follow her or his preferred spiritual or religious tradition;
  • a different spiritual or religious path or practice is forced on a person;
  • a person’s spiritual or religious tradition, beliefs, or practices are demeaned or belittled; or
  • a person is made to feel shame for practicing his or her traditional or family beliefs.

There is plenty of evidence to support our conclusion that spiritual violence was common in residential schools.”

 

It is also interesting to note how often that violence was effective. Many Indigenous children became good Christians for life. Many of them “lost” their own spirituality. I think that was a profound harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples by Canada. The effects of this violence were deep. Often it did not end in schools. For example, residential school survivor Theodore (Ted) Fontaine from Manitoba told the TRC, “I went through sexual abuse. I went through physical abuse, mental, spiritual. And I’ll tell you…the one thing we suffered [from] the most is the mental and spiritual abuse that we carried for the rest of our lives.”

All of this in turn has led to intergenerational impacts on Indigenous people that continues to have profound effect on them. The conclusion is clear, as the TRC said, “That Christians in Canada, in the name of their religion, inflicted serious harms on Aboriginal children, their families, and communities was in fundamental contradiction to their core beliefs.”

That is a mighty sad conclusion.

The Poisonous Fruit of White Supremacy

 

As I have already said, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) found that the entire residential school systems that Canada imposed on indigenous people without their consent, was based on the clear assumption, entirely belied by the facts, that European civilization and culture, and the Christian religion were superior to indigenous culture. The Canadians inherited from the Europeans they succeeded, an attitude in which they assumed that the indigenous culture and religion was savage and brutal. European countries, like France, England, and Spain, were the original colonizers and with the advent of settler colonialism that position was taken over by Canadians of European descent.  This was the ideology of  white supremacy.

 

As a result, the TRC reached a devastating conclusion:

“Colonization was undertaken to meet the perceived needs of the imperial powers. The justification offered for colonialism—the need to bring Christianity and civilization to the Indigenous peoples of the world—may have been a sincerely and firmly held belief, but as justification for intervening in the lives of other peoples, it does not stand up to legal, moral, or even logical scrutiny.  The papacy had no authority to give away lands that belonged to Indigenous people. The Doctrine of Discovery cannot serve as the basis for a legitimate to the lands that were colonized, if for no other reason that the so-called discovered lands were already well known  to the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited them for thousands of years. The wars of conquest that took place to strip Indigenous peoples were not morally just wars; Indigenous peoples were not, as colonists often claimed subhuman, and neither were they living in violation of any agreed-upon set of values. There was no moral imperative to impose Christianity on the Indigenous peoples of the world. They did not need to be ‘civilized’; indeed, there is no hierarchy of societies. Indigenous peoples had systems that were complete unto themselves and met their needs. Those systems were dynamic; they changed over time and were capable of continued change. Taken as a whole, the colonial process relied on for its justification on the sheer presumption of taking a specific set of European beliefs and values and proclaiming them to be universal values that could be imposed upon the peoples of the world. This universalizing of European values—so central to the colonial project—that was extended to North America served as the prime justification and rationale for the imposition of the residential peoples of Canada.”

 

White supremacy in other words, including a belief, in most cases sincerely held, that white Europeans were superior to Indigenous people and their religion, had the same element of superiority, was the justification for European dominance over Indigenous people, and that included imposing their religion on Indigenous people no matter the costs. That fundamental belief was the fundamental problem, and the legacy of that belief continues into present times. It was and is, toxic. It is the basis for much that went wrong with residential schools, and the imperial project of doing as we please with Indigenous people.

 

Nothing that comes from eating that poisonous fruit is worth saving.

Predatory Religion

 

The Christian churches and their missionaries played very important roles in the campaign to ban indigenous spiritual practices and replace them with Christian ones. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) described the process this way:

“The Christian Churches not only provided the moral justification for the colonization of other peoples’ lands, but they also dispatched missionaries to the colonized nations in order to convert ‘the heathen.’  From the fifteenth century on, the Indigenous peoples of the world were the objects of a strategy of spiritual and cultural conquest that had its origins in Europe.  While they often worked in isolation and under difficult conditions, missionaries were representatives of worldwide organizations that enjoyed the backing of influential individuals in some of the most powerful nations of the world, and which to amass considerable experience transforming different cultures. Residential schools figured prominently in missionary work, not only in Canada, but also around the world.”

 

As a result I do not think it is an exaggeration to describe these religious organizations as predatory.  That is precisely what they were—predatory religions. Their prey was indigenous people around the world.  The TRC explained their workings as follows:

“Christian missionaries played a complex, but central role in the European colonial project. Their presence helped justify the extension of empires, since they were visibly spreading the word of God to the heathen. If their efforts were unsuccessful, the missionaries might conclude that those who refused the Christian message could not expect the protection of the Christian church or the law, thus clearing the way for their destruction. Although the missionaries often attempted to soften the impact of imperialism, they were also committed to making the greatest changes in the culture and psychology of colonized. They might, for example, seek to have traders give fair prices and to have governments officials  provide relief in times of need, but they also worked to undermine relationships to the land, language, religion, family, educational practices, morality, and social customs.”

 

The missionaries disparaged indigenous spirituality with complete contempt. Later I intend to show how mistaken they were. The people of the New World had a new religion that the people from the old world could not fathom because it was so foreign to their assumptions. They also saw such spirituality as a competitor. They believed that the goal of cultural transformation could not be obtained without stamping out all indigenous religion and culture. As a result it is hardly surprising that they worked tirelessly to separate children from their parents, families, and communities. In the circumstances I think the word “predatory” is entirely justified.

As Blaise Pascal so well put it:  “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Terra nullius, the Doctrine of Discovery, and a lot of Bull

 

Residential schools were not established in a vacuum or what the Europeans referred to as terra nullius.  At least since the 15th century, though probably much earlier, the Roman Catholic Church, which was then the “universal” Christian Church saw itself as the vanguard of white Christian hegemony. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘TRC’) concluded,

“In the fifteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church, building on the traditions of the Roman Empire, conceived of itself as the guardian of a universal world order. The adoption of Christianity within the Roman Empire (which defined itself as ‘civilized’) reinforced the view that to be civilized was to be Christian.”

 

Everyone else of course was a barbarian. The papacy led the charge here. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull (I love that expression in this case because it is so appropriate) in which he granted most of North and South America to Spain, without, of course, consulting the people that lived there.  That Bull helped to establish what was later referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which gave the intellectual foundation for western colonialism. According to this doctrine, Catholics were allowed to own what they “discovered” in the New World, notwithstanding that it had been discovered thousands of years  before that. North and South America were far from empty of people. Of course, in return for granting these rights first to Spain and later to other European kingdoms, those kings were expected to assist in the conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity.

The Doctrine of Discovery was based on a second false doctrine, namely, terra nullius—no man’s land—which falsely asserted that such land belonged to no one so could be claimed by Europeans. As a result, Europeans could take what they pleased in the New World and they had theological justification to do exactly that.

White supremacy was the justification of these dubious doctrines. As the TRC said,

“Underlying these arguments was the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves. The ‘civilizing mission’ rested on a belief of racial and cultural superiority.”

In the Canadian Parliament in 1883 the federal Minister of Public Works Hector Langevin stated the government position on residential schools:

“If you wish to educate these children you must separate them from their parents during the time that they are being educated. If you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed they acquire the habits and tastes—it is to be hoped only the good tastes—of civilized people.”

 

The federal government of Canada was engaged in colonizing western Canada at the time that it began the residential schooling system. It did so in order to secure claims to the land that could not be assailed successfully. It saw that in the United States engaging in attempts to conquer the indigenous people was extremely expensive. In some years the American federal government spent as much as 25% of its budget fighting these wars and it was questionable how legitimate the claims to the indigenous land would be even after such huge expense.  Canada tried a different route—treaties. The federal government in Canada also recognized that on account of the treaties it was making and the dispossession of indigenous people from their traditional territories the indigenous people might need help to prevent starvation.  This problem was only exacerbated when the government forced some First Nations, such as the Peguis people of Manitoba from prime farmland they occupied and were very successfully farming in favour of European settlers. The government wanted to give the indigenous people the skills they would need to support themselves, but they also had the important goal of furthering their assimilation. As the TRC pointed out, “the schools were seen as engines of cultural and spiritual change: ‘savages were to emerge as Christian ‘white men.’”

Acknowledging this desire, Duncan Campbell Scott Canada’s highest civil servant with jurisdiction over “Indians” as they were called at the time, summarize Canadian government goals as follows:

“It includes not only a scholastic education, but instruction in the means of gaining a livelihood from the soil as a member of an industrial or mercantile community, and the substitution of Christian ideals of conduct and morals for aboriginal concepts of both.”

 

Residential schools were not just about education. In fact, they were much more important for the government’s goal of assimilation. And the churches were the instruments it chose to embark on this process.  And the rest is history. Ugly history at that.