12/07/2013 05:00 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Canada's Truth Commission Learned From Mandela, Says Head

Georges MERILLON via Getty Images
SOUTH AFRICA - MARCH 15: Nelson Mandela campaigns In South Africa On March 15, 1994 - Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Aboriginal Canadians have shared in the struggles Nelson Mandela faced in his fight for racial equality, says the head of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, whose commission is compiling a national record of the Indian residential school era, says the anti-apartheid leader understood what aboriginal people suffered in that chapter of Canada's history.

"He was certainly an elder … a wise and kind man who brought with his presence to this country an understanding of what it was that aboriginal people in this country were experiencing and had experienced in the past," Sinclair told CBC News on Friday.

Mandela died peacefully at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday following a prolonged lung infection. He was 95 years old.

He was a prominent international figure for more than half a century, first as a leading human rights campaigner in South Africa and then as the world's best-known political prisoner.

Following his release from prison, he again became the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, and in 1994 became the first president of a democratic South Africa.

Canada, South Africa both have truth commissions

Mandela helped establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to record human rights violations from all sides of the apartheid struggle, but also had the power to grant amnesty to those who committed abuses.

The Canadian government created its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 as part of a major settlement agreement with former residential school students.

The commission has been travelling across the country, listening to former students' accounts of forced cultural assimilation and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse.

"We learned a great deal from the South African commission in terms of how to engage with survivors of atrocities, how to provide support to them in the course of their testimony, how to ensure that their sense of story was validated, and how to ensure that they understood the importance of not only truth-telling, but the importance of making a contribution to reconciliation," Sinclair said.

The commissioner said there are similarities between Mandela's struggle during South Africa's apartheid era and the struggles of many Canadians who were impacted by the residential school system.

It's a point that was echoed by Mary Courchene, an aboriginal elder in Manitoba.

"Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. The aboriginal people were incarcerated for 147 years in the same kinds of institutions and residential schools, not for what they did, but for who they were: aboriginal people," she said.

Sinclair said he aims to emulate the kind of reconciliation Mandela articulated in his words and modelled in his actions.

"Being able to look forward, to have a vision about what kind of relationship you want to have in the future," he said.