Acknowledging the Past (Justice)

The concept of justice was familiar to Indigenous societies prior to colonization; however, their practice was very different from Eurocentric notions of justice and so not recognized by European governments. While Europeans focussed on harsh punishments for crimes committed, Indigenous communities focussed on restorative justice. “In contrast to criminal justice responses, which seek to punish each act of wrongdoing, restorative justice focuses on repairing harm and restoring relationships” (Restorative Justice | Peacebuilders International 2018). This restoration is accomplished through a justice circle of facilitated dialogue between the victim and the perpetrator with supporters and community members present.

These mediated traditions of justice were disrupted by colonization. Supported by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Pope Alexander VI decreed the Papal Bull Inter Caetera, also known as the Doctrine of Discovery in 1493. The purpose of this decree was to spread Christianity to “all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south…no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found” so that “the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself” (trans. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2023).

Christopher Columbus is actually named in the Doctrine of Discovery as the right candidate for this undertaking to help the peoples of distant lands “embrace the Catholic faith and be trained in good morals” (trans. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2023). The Pope also declared, “And we make, appoint, and depute you [the Queen and King] and your said heirs and successors lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind” (trans. Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2023).

The Doctrine of Discovery supported the European notion of terra nullius (empty land), which indicated that anything perceived as empty land could be claimed for the Crown. Given the dismissive attitude towards non-Europeans, the free movement of many Indigenous peoples, and the vastness of the territory, the notion of terra nullius could be applied by European explorers in the Americas and other territories to appropriate lands.

First People’s Law offers an Indigenous perspective on the Doctrine of Discovery calling it a racist doctrine used to acquire Indigenous lands using the notion of “discovery.” Although from the 15th century, this doctrine laid the foundation for Canadian law in the 1880s. The St. Catharines’ Milling decision, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, declared that the only lands Indigenous people were entitled to were “Indian Reserves” and that lands outside these areas were Crown Lands in Ontario. When Canada gained its constitution from the British Crown in 1982, these Crown Lands reverted to Canada, still reflecting the Doctrine of Discovery (McIvor n.d.). The ongoing use of the Doctrine of Discovery has led to continued friction between the federal government and Indigenous populations, making the concept of “reconciliation” difficult to impossible.

Following various treaty agreements, which were often not interpreted the same way by Indigenous and European parties, in 1763, King George III of England issued the Royal Proclamation. This document stated that Indigenous peoples “should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved for them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds…” (Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commision on Aboriginal Peoples 2010, Looking Forward, Looking Back). It also assumed that the King had legal title to Canada and that Indigenous peoples would acknowledge the monarchy’s power in exchange for “protection” from England (Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commision on Aboriginal Peoples 2010, Looking Forward, Looking Back).

Justice Murray Sinclair on the Royal Proclamation of 1763 YouTube (30min50sec)

In 1857, Canada passed an act to “Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes.” From these foundations, The British North America Act of 1867 created the Confederation of Canada, tilting the balance even further in favour of the growing numbers of colonizers with our first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, declaring that his government would “do away with the tribal system, and assimilate the Indian people into all respects with the inhabitants of the Dominion” (Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commision on Aboriginal Peoples 2010, Looking Forward, Looking Back).

“Protection” instead became “domination,” “assistance,” and “assimilation” of Indigenous peoples. What followed was the very patriarchal establishment of reservations, economic and socio-political control by federal agents, and compulsory European-style and Church-affiliated education via residential schools. all of which disregarded and destroyed existing cultural practices and ways of knowing.

A few years later, the Indian Act of 1876 (significantly revised in 1951 and 1985), created the Department of the Interior which later became Indian Affairs, giving Indian agents enormous power and control over Indigenous peoples throughout Canada, including the power to prevent individuals from leaving reservations. Indigenous populations were relocated at the whim of the government, sometimes forcibly, either because it was deemed best for them or because the government wanted to access resources on Indigenous lands (Highlights from the Report of the Royal Commision on Aboriginal Peoples 2010, Looking Forward, Looking Back).

The Indian Act Sucks 2019  YouTube (4min43sec)


In 1983, Patrick Johnston wrote the report Native Children and the Child Welfare System, in which he coined the term “Sixties Scoop.” This refers to a period in the 1960s when an unprecedented number of Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed with non-Indigenous families, resulting in a loss of family ties, culture, and identity (Sixties Scoop 2009). Based on a 1980 study, Johnston suggests that by 1977, of an estimated 15,500 Indigenous children, 20% were living in foster care. Between 1969 and 1979, 78% of these children were then adopted, usually by non-Indigenous families. It was unlikely that they would be returned to their homes, and their loss of familial and cultural identities meant many of these children found it impossible to fit in anywhere (Johnston 2016).

This history encompasses populations across Canada; however, as is shown in the sections on Land and Housing as well as Nutrition and Health the majority of Indigenous people living in Toronto have come here from other cities and provinces bringing their personal and family histories with them.


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