The Doctrine of Discovery and the PCC

What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

The Doctrine of Discovery is a set of concepts developed from a series of papal bulls (decrees) issued around the 15thcentury. It goes hand in hand with the concept known as terra nullius, Latin for “empty land.” The bulls that developed and supported these concepts provided theological justification and legal backing to European monarchs to invade and seize non-Christian lands, enslave non-Christian people “in perpetuity,” and take their property. The idea that European colonial powers had a right to appropriate lands and possessions and treat non-Christians as undeserving of rights flows from this doctrine and these concepts and heavily influenced the legislation that eventually governed Indigenous-Crown relations. This doctrine and these concepts also profoundly shaped the system of residential and day schools in which the church was complicit.

Justice Ministries has prepared a report, including a theological reflection, regarding the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius as part of its 2019 report to General Assembly. The report includes a recommendation, in line with Call to Action 46ii of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that The Presbyterian Church in Canada should repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. You can find resources regarding the Doctrine of Discovery, including links to videos, a webinar, some study questions, and further reading below.  You can also download the Justice Ministries report on the Doctrine of Discovery here:

Download the report to the 2019 General Assembly regarding the Doctrine of Discovery.

Image of arrow pointing downRepudiating the Doctrine of Discovery

Webinar Information

Justice Ministries will host a webinar on Thursday, May 16 from 1 to 2 p.m. (Eastern) to answer questions about the Doctrine of Discovery, its influence on the PCC’s ministry with Indigenous people, and what repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery means. This webinar is suitable for commissioners as preparation for General Assembly and to other members of the church who are interested in the PCC’s ministry of healing and reconciliation.

You can join from your computer, tablet or phone. Find out more and sign up for this free webinar session at

The Influence of the Doctrine of Discovery on The Presbyterian Church in Canada

Video Description:
The Doctrine of Discovery has significantly shaped the relationship between the church and Indigenous peoples. TRC Calls to Action 46 and 49 call on churches to reject “concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” Watch this video to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery and how it has impacted The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s mission and ministry with Indigenous peoples.

Image of arrow pointing downDoctrine of Discovery Research

Questions for Discussing the PCC video The Influence of the Doctrine of Discovery on The Presbyterian Church in Canada

  1. Had you heard of the Doctrine of Discovery or terra nulliusbefore watching this video? If so, where did you hear about it? If not, why do you think that is?
  2. Did anything surprise you about what you heard in the video? Did anything upset you?
  3. In what ways do you see the Doctrine of Discovery as connected to the Indian Residential Schools System? What other aspects of Indigenous people’s lives were influenced by the Doctrine of Discovery?
  4. This video provides historic examples of how the Doctrine of Discovery impacted The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s mission and ministry with Indigenous people up until the 1960s. How do you think the Doctrine of Discovery continues to affect the relationship between Indigenous people and the church (or between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, more broadly)?
  5. If you are an Indigenous person, how do you think it would be to watch this video as a non-Indigenous viewer? If you are a non-Indigenous person, how do you think it would be to watch this video as an Indigenous viewer?
  6. After watching this video, do you think it is important to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? If not, why not? If so, what steps do you think are important to take?

Further Resources

What have other faith organizations said about the Doctrine of Discovery?
Other denominations’ responses and materials for further reading can be found at the links below.

Ecumenical statements and resources:

Single denomination/group statements and resources: