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.



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