I am sitting on the grass in the shade beside the cascading fountains of a children’s water park. All around me I hear the voices of happy excited children.

I have half an eye out for our grandchildren running from pool to pool and spraying each other with water guns. They only need half my eye because grandma is also here and she provides two eagle eyes at all times to keep track of our wee wild ones.

It is hard today to hear happy children’s voices as our country anguishes over the terror of children suffering and dying apart from their families while in the care of religiously run Indian Residential Schools. The contrast between the carefree little ones I see this morning and the reality I know that lies beneath the surface of our history is heart-wrenching. It is tempting to want to look away. But, I know, I must not look away.

The importance of facing our painful past is underlined for me today by the book upon which the other half of my eye is focused. It was a father’s day gift and could not have come at a more appropriate time. In her book Caste, Isabel Wilkerson probes the deep structures beneath racism. She argues that “race” is the skin but “caste” is the bones that keep the skin in place, the usually unrecognized or at least unacknowledged, framework that reinforces certain predominant and generally accepted social strata. There are some people we expect to find living in certain areas of our communities and operating in particular professions and exercising certain levels of economic power. There are other people we do not anticipate finding in positions of privilege and comfort shared by the members of the dominant culture in our society.

These distinctions are so familiar and so accepted that we seldom even notice their existence. Wilkerson is asking us to wake up to a reality deeper than racism that causes inequalities to be entrenched in our social structures. She uses the image of a house to make her point. It is a powerful and incredibly timely image that bears reflecting upon especially in this moment of our cultural awareness in Canada. Wilkerson writes:

America [n.b. for my purposes read Canada] is an old house. We can never declare the work over. Wind, flood, drought, and human upheavals batter a structure that is already fighting whatever flaws were left unattended in the original foundation. When you live in an old house, you may not want to go into the basement after a storm to see what the rains have wrought. Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.

We in the developed world are like homeowners who inherited a house on a piece of land that is beautiful on the outside, but whose soil is unstable loam and rock, heaving and contracting over generations, cracks patched but the deeper ruptures waved away for decades, centuries even. Many people may rightly say, “I had nothing to do with how this all started. I have nothing to do with the sins of the past. My ancestors never attacked indigenous people, never owned slaves.” And, yes. Not one of us was here when this house was built. Our immediate ancestors may have had nothing to do with it, but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.

In the light of unmarked graves, destroyed or hidden records, removed grave markers, ignored oral history, and a pattern of denial and intentional ignorance that has persisted for generations, Wilkerson’s imagery is startling. Her warning is sobering. To ignore or deny our dark past is to push into the shadows tragedies that will continue to plague us until they are fully acknowledged and until there is deep repentance for the sins of which we the current privileged powerful inhabitants of this land continue to be the benefactors.

In the light most recently of Kamloops and Marieval, it is imperative that we use Canada Day this year to fly our flags at half-mast. We need to put aside our party hats and engage in genuine soul-searching and profound penitence. I cannot afford to sit comfortably in the water park enjoying the sounds of happy children’s voices without remaining aware of the unheard cries of lost children lying silent beneath the ground.