discovering justice

When Hernan Cortes and a force of some 800 Spanish conquistadors, sailors and auxiliaries landed at the site of modern day Veracruz, Mexico, in the spring of 1519, they met a delegation from the Totonac community living there.

When Hernan Cortes and a force of some 800 Spanish conquistadors, sailors and auxiliaries landed at the site of modern day Veracruz, Mexico, in the spring of 1519, they met a delegation from the Totonac community living there. Almost immediately as I recall the tale, a friar stepped forward and read in Castilian to the uncomprehending locals a short document called the Requerimiento or Requirement.

This public proclamation prepared by a Spanish jurist six years earlier, informed them of Spain’s rights to their lands as determined by papal bulls issued earlier by Popes Nicholas V, Alexander VI and Julius II and a treaty between Spain and Portugal dividing all the newly discovered lands outside of Europe among themselves. If they did not immediately submit to their new rulers they would be attacked and enslaved. Once this legal nicety had been dealt with, the conquest could begin.

As far as the Spanish were concerned the moral and legal responsibility for the brutality and suffering that followed the reading had shifted to the indigenous peoples. The Requerimiento’s last sentence outlines the consequences of not submitting: “We shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us.”

Within three years of the foreign invaders landing the Aztec Confederacy fell. The wealth appropriated by the new Spanish overlords there fueled the further conquests that swept over the hemisphere in the 16th and 17th centuries. This wave of European discovery and conquest finally reached the Yukon in the 18th century with the appearance of the Russians on the Alaskan coast and the mid 19th century with the arrival inland of the Hudson Bay’s fur traders.

An evolving Doctrine of Discovery rooted in 15th-century concepts underpinned the advance of European colonizers in their subjugation of indigenous peoples around the world and continues to do so. The belief that, according to the World Council of Churches (WCC), “Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous Peoples” remains deeply embedded in contemporary assimilationist policies of many governments towards First Peoples. It is being challenged, though, by a global transitional justice movement.

Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, told an overflow crowd in Whitehorse’s Old Firehall earlier this week that the 64 Truth Commissions around the world, which are dealing with the legacies of civil war, genocide, brutal dictatorships as well as our residential school history are in the vanguard of this transitional justice movement. The World Council of Churches, a worldwide body representing 349 churches, has situated itself there as well.

The WCC meeting in Bossey, Switzerland, this last February repudiated “the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as violation of the inherent rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God.”

Both Justice Sinclair and the WCC see the Doctrine of Discovery rooted in European political forms, structures and Christian beliefs as having to incorporate a much broader interculturalized concept of justice that in the words of the WCC assists Indigenous Peoples “in their struggle to involve themselves fully in creating and implementing solutions that recognize and respect the collective rights of Indigenous peoples and to exercise their right to self-determination and self-governance.” (For more on this read )

The Doctrine of Discovery will be a theme for discussion at the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) this coming May. It should also part of our own on-going reflection and journey with First Nations here as they rediscover a justice that, in the words of the WCC, “promote(s) indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and strengthen their own spiritual and theological reflections.”

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact