On May 24, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in the Canadian province of British Columbia announced that it had located the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three years old, buried in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. In the weeks that followed, ground-penetrating radar found still more buried children at sites across Canada, including the recent discovery of 751 children’s bodies at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Because there were more than 130 such schools in Canada, it’s expected that the coming weeks and months will reveal many more unmarked graves.
“Residential schools,” the Canadian euphemism for boarding schools that separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, were designed to take away Indigenous language and culture—“to kill the Indian in the child.” These schools existed from the late nineteenth century until 1997, and about 70 percent of them were operated by Roman Catholic missionary orders and dioceses. Residential schools were not only explicitly imperialist in their aims, but, unsurprisingly, were the sites of much emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The trauma caused by the system is still felt by survivors and their communities. The 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide.” The questions that all Canadians are now asking about restitution and reparations to Indigenous people are thus especially urgent for Roman Catholics—including what responsibility we the living have for sins that, in some cases, were committed centuries ago.
In thinking about all of this, I keep returning to Dante’s Inferno, especially what it teaches us about responsibility and culpability. The odd trait uniting the souls in Dante’s hell is their refusal to accept that they deserve to be there. In Canto III, the first thing the pilgrim hears from the damned is them “cursing God, cursing their own parents, / the human race, the time, the place, the seed / of their beginning, and their birth.” This pattern continues through the Inferno; from the deceitful lovers Paolo and Francesca, who blame their reading of Lancelot for their infidelity, to Lucifer himself, who weeps in self-pity, those eternally punished are marked not only by a refusal to repent, but also by a denial that they sin. By foregrounding this evasion of culpability as the distinction between salvation and its absence, Dante shows pride as a longing for a world that operates according to our will rather than God’s. To curse your age, rather than to humbly acknowledge your failure to respond to it in Christian charity, shows that you’ve become closed off to your dependence on God’s love.