I met Desmond Tutu in 1990 when interviewing him about the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Like most Canadians I was well aware of apartheid and greatly admired Tutu’s personal risk-taking in the cause of liberation for South Africans.
My admiration grew even deeper five years later as he began chairing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He opened the heart of a whole nation to truth-telling about all that had diminished them, destroyed trust and prevented them from being all that they could be as “rainbow people of God.”
While aware of the shameful past of South African apartheid, most Canadians were far less aware about our own societal sins regarding our history of Aboriginal residential schools. These schools, created by the government of Canada to assimilate native children into white culture, and run by the churches, led to untold suffering and cultural loss.
Children endured long separations from their parents and were unable to speak their own language. Too many also experienced physical and sexual abuse.
Since 2003, the United Church of Canada has worked with other churches and Aboriginal and survivor groups to promote a national truth-telling and healing process. Over the next five years, we as Canadians will all have the opportunity to participate in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission through national and community events, as well as commemoration activities.
Today, with survivors, Aboriginal, church and government leaders, I will join Gov. Gen Michaëlle Jean to mark a renewed effort in our own truth-telling and healing process.
Acknowledging wrongdoing is the first step on the road of repentance. At the United Church, we have worked hard to become informed and responsive to the harmful impact of the residential schools on Aboriginal Peoples and their cultures. We have apologized to former residential school students, their families and communities. But there is much more listening and, we trust, healing ahead of us.
Today, all Canadians are being given the opportunity to come to terms with our own national shame — and with the promise of healing.
As Desmond Tutu did for South Africans, Aboriginal Peoples’ leaders here in Canada are helping us to face the pain with promise; and to move through anger and apology to shared hope. They invite us to listen deeply to all the stories of this land.
Mardi Tindal is the 40th Moderator of the United Church of Canada