Canadian residential schools were this country's apartheid system, a way of deliberately destroying a people because of their race, language and spiritual beliefs.
It is only fitting that one of the observers at Wednesday's Truth and Reconciliation Commission opening day was a South African professor who sat on his country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Piet Meiring, a professor and clergyman, was invited by commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair. Meiring was in Winnipeg last year to teach a course at Canadian Mennonite University.
He will address the commission today.
Meiring said there are differences and similarities between the two countries' TRCs.
"I think our commission is different from Canada's in terms of immediacy, scope and making it public," he said.
Apartheid was a method of legal racial segregation between whites and the black majority. It existed between 1948 and 1994. It ended that year in multiracial democratic elections which were won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela. The hearings began shortly after.
In South Africa, highlights of the TRC were broadcast nightly after the evening news.
"People were faced with ugly facts and the need for healing."
Amnesty was offered to those guilty of crimes under apartheid. Seven thousand perpetrators requested amnesty. Half were granted. They had to be totally candid about their actions, give a motive and prove a balance between their motive and their act. An apology was not necessary.
Meiring said while reconciliation may be the object, it's not enough.
"If you want reconciliation you need truth."
Meiring said many in South Africa wanted to have the hearings end so they could put their shameful history behind them.
"Justice and reconciliation are two sides of the same coin. We need to face all the issues, not just what happened in the past but what that means for the future."
Meiring warned the process can't end when the TRC has done its work.
"We're not there yet in South Africa. I think we've made some progress. (Archbishop Desmond) Tutu used to say we've set the table but the meal has yet to be served.
"God is great and reconciliation is possible. But it's a long way. You need compassion. You need time."
The relative success of the TRC in South Africa depends on whom you ask.
"Blacks might say it succeeded, whites might not. One-third would say, 'Yes it was great', one-third say, 'It was terrible' and one-third would say it was all right."
Meiring said in 1994, South Africans thought everything could be healed.
"We thought we had it made. The rainbow nation! After 15 years the rainbow has faded somewhat. You can write racism and apartheid out of the book. You can't write it out of the heart."
A significant difference between the two countries is that, in South Africa, the churches were seen as saviours. Here, they shoulder much of the blame for the damage caused to children and their families.
Alberta archbishop Gerard Pettipas said that much has been acknowledged.
"With any kind of abuse there's no winner," he said. "I think we have to recognize there is guilt, there is shame, there is disrespect. We're sinners. Our goal is to be saints."
Yesterday, Justice Sinclair told the assembled survivors "we have the chance to make history."
It will take "immeasurable courage" to tell their stories, he said.
"The truth, eventually, will heal us all."
A vast number of people know little about our residential school history, he said.
Standing in the hot sun Wednesday Meiring remembered an elderly man who testified at the TRC. He had been tortured by police who told him to scream all he wanted because one could hear him.
"Now they hear me," he quietly told the commission.
Our survivors want the same opportunity. Belatedly, they're getting it.
'It was good to see the talking circle and... see a mix of aboriginal and non-aboriginal,
politicians, survivors all telling what this meant to them. It means a lot because change
isn't going to happen just with politicians -- it has to happen with people, too'
-- Bob Watts, former TRC executive director
'I want to hear what they're saying. I want
to know what really happened'
-- Sister Agnes, a nun from Nigeria