OTTAWA – Nelson Mandela is being remembered in Canada for his wisdom and fearless fight against racism. As it turned out, Canada also occupied a special place in Mandela’s heart in later years.
The man known affectionately as “Madiba” died Thursday at age 95. Mandela never forgot the support he received from Canada _ and from former prime minister Brian Mulroney _ in his epic fight for freedom, said Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former United Nations ambassador under Mulroney.
“It’s fair to say that Mandela was deeply attached to Canada,” recalled Lewis, who visited Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel, numerous times between 2001 and 2009 in South Africa.
All Mandela ever wanted to talk about was Canada, and Mulroney, said Lewis.
“He had a tremendous affection and regard for our former prime minister who did do a really major job in the work to overthrow apartheid and have Mandela released,” Lewis said in an interview.
“And Mandela never forgot that. He always saw in Canada an ally that he trusted and, in a way, loved.”
Mulroney broke ranks with other western leaders in the 1980s to lead the fight against the apartheid regime that included strict economic sanctions. He said with Mandela’s passing “a precious light has gone out in the world,” but that his spirit would live forever.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is expected to attend Mandela’s funeral next week, said the world had lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen.
“He demonstrated that the only path forward for the nation was to reject the appeal of bitterness,” said Harper, who described Mandela’s forbearance as “legendary.”
Mulroney called him one of the giants of our time.
“Let us remember though, that nothing can extinguish the flame of freedom he lit in South Africa. Nothing will dim the power of his message of tolerance, of integrity, and statesmanship,” Mulroney said in a statement.
“That his legacy will continue to nourish the spirit of everyone who struggles for justice and freedom anywhere. That the dream of Nelson Mandela will never die.”
Mandela’s spirit melted away partisan bickering in the House of Commons on Thursday night as members of all parties united in silence to honour his memory.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called Mandela an intelligent man who cared for his people.
“The light that he brought to the world will continue to shine long after him.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Mandela offered hope and inspiration to millions, “and will forever occupy a place in the hearts, minds and imaginations of people across the globe.”
Mandela touched Canadian soil for the first time in the summer of 1990, just months after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. On his third and final visit to Canada in November 2001, then prime minister Jean Chretien bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship on him.
On Thursday night, Chretien called that “a great moment of my life,” one that allowed Canada to properly honour a man who inspired the world.
The former Liberal prime minister fondly recalled setting up a meeting in Toronto between Mandela and the late, legendary Canadian jazz pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson.
“It was very moving,” Chretien recalled. “They knew of each other well.”
When Mandela was in a room with other world leaders, Chretien said, he was the centre of attention.
“Nobody paid any attention to any us _ it was all for Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela and Alberta Premier Alison Redford also shared an enduring bond.
As a lawyer before entering politics, Redford worked with Mandela in the early 1990s to help build South Africa’s legal system and lay the groundwork for the first all-race elections that led to Mandela becoming president.
“He listened to people and he didn’t always react immediately. He absorbed a lot of information and he understood that the best perspective you could get from people was from people that lived an experience,” she said in an interview.
“It wasn’t always from experts and it was always from people who were partisan and involved in politics. It was talking to people who were having life experiences and learning from those experiences how to do things better.”
In later life, Mandela never lost his curiosity about Canada, said Lewis.
He inquired about Canadian party politics and had an enduring interest in probing “the intensity of our opposition to apartheid.”
Former Liberal prime ministers John Turner and Paul Martin also praised Mandela’s legacy in separate statements Thursday night.
Turner said the world has lost a ”great man of history” and that Mandela’s contribution to peace in South Africa ”was a beacon to the world.”
Martin added that Mandela ”harnessed the power of his own personal sacrifice to help free a nation of the need to hate.”
Other reaction to Mandela’s death from all corners of Canada streamed onto social media.
On Twitter, former Liberal leader Bob Rae called Mandela a truly great man who was simple and direct.
“Disciplined, passionate, caring, funny, courageous, compassionate, generous” were some of the other words Rae used to describe Mandela.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said Mandela’s life will continue to serve as a beacon for change.
“There are few people who have done more to inspire the world than Nelson Mandela, and I am deeply saddened to learn of his death,” Wynne said in a statement.
Junior foreign affairs minister Deepak Obhrai, born and raised in Tanzania, also offered some of the federal government’s initial condolences, and heartfelt personal reflection.
“As I grew up Tanzania became independent and the southern states in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe as you call it today, South Africa, were mired in complete anti-apartheid based on race,” he said.
“I grew up in a country that was fighting and it had a tremendous impact on my life to say that it is very important to fight for dignity and human beings.”
^_ with files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton, Terry Pedwell in Ottawa and Will Campbell in Toronto