JOHANNESURG, South Africa – A Canadian delegation landed in Johannesburg, South Africa today to pay final respects to Nelson Mandela.
The contingent headed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a host of notable politicians left the airport in a 14-vehicle motorcade with the prime minister in a silver Toyota SUV.
The group includes former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Kim Campbell.
Opposition leader Tom Mulcair is with them, as is one of Mandela’s former lawyers, Quebec MP Irwin Cotler, representing the Liberals.
The delegation includes the premiers of the Yukon, Nova Scotia and Alberta and Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford worked with Mandela to develop South Africa’s legal system.
Former prime minister Joe Clark, Mulroney’s foreign minister when his government pushed South Africa to free Mandela, is already in South Africa.
The delegation will join world leaders at a memorial for Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday and will be on hand in Pretoria on Wednesday when the former president’s body lies in state.
A state funeral will be held Sunday for Mandela, who died last Thursday at the age of 95.
The flight brought Harper and predecessors Chretien, Mulroney and Campbell together in close quarters in an aircraft Chretien once dubbed dubbed the “Taj Mahal,” a reference to the front stateroom installed when Mulroney bought a fleet of the jetliners during his time in office.
But the animosity of the past seems to have dissipated, at least on the surface.
“I’m not a grumpy politician anymore,” Mulroney said with a smile as he spoke of the significance of being in such close proximity with his former rivals.
“I’m a statesman now.”
As Chretien took one of his trademark strolls to the back of the plane, the former Liberal prime minister openly lamented that he never used this particular aircraft during his three terms in office, mainly because of the way he painted Mulroney as a free-spending politician with a taste for Gucci.
Chretien also expressed his disappointment that Canada doesn’t put its former prime ministers to work for the country’s betterment and to promote international relations after they leave office.
“It’s not our tradition,” he said. “And it’s too bad.”
It was a less-than-subtle point that highlighted the tug-of-war style of Canadian politics as the two former PMs reflected on Mandela’s unique consensus-building abilities.
When Mandela was released from custody after 27 years in prison, many a pundit noted he could have launched his country into civil war.
Instead, he chose the path of peace, and eventually saw South Africa’s apartheid regime crumble.
As the Canadian delegation flew across the Atlantic, just prior to refuelling in Cape Verde, Harper spoke briefly of Canada’s role in ensuring Mandela’s release from prison.
“It really tells you about the long and leading history of Canada from the days of Mr. (John) Diefenbaker on, and the struggle that defined Nelson Mandela’s life — the struggle against apartheid and the transition of South Africa to a modern, non-racial state,” Harper said, flanked by Chretien to his right and with Mulroney and Campbell facing him at the stateroom’s wood- grain table.
“It’s something we should all be very proud of and I’m greatly honoured to be joined by Mr. Mulroney, Mrs. Campbell and Mr. Chretien as well as Mr. Clark who will join us when we reach South Africa.”
But 30 years ago, it was a huge gamble on Canada’s part to support the fight against the country’s racist policies and to demand the release of Mandela, said Mulroney.
The United States and the U.K. were “offside,” he noted, and Mandela’s African National Congress needed a G7 country in its corner.
“We knew we were doing the right thing, but on the other hand we also knew that it was a tough battle,” he said, adding that other nations — including Canada — could learn from how Mandela brought people together.
“When you just get one look at what president Mandela did in South Africa, you know it was all worthwhile.”
“It’s an over-wrought expression, but Nelson Mandela was an iconic figure who was truly a great man.”
Chretien, who will celebrate his 80th birthday next month, said there is no true comparison to Mandela among world leaders, because every one of them is different.
“We are all people coming from a long way from (South Africa),” he said, adding with a smile: “You know I’m from rural Quebec.”
Chretien pointed out that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was an orphan who never met his parents and that Britain’s John Major “was the son of a circus acrobat.”
Mandela was a tribal leader’s son who became a lawyer and a prisoner.
Former governor general Michaelle Jean said the respect for the man that Canada’s leaders share is what is important, as South Africa shows the world both its pride in Mandela and its pain at losing him.
“To see representatives of all political families together going to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela is totally in the spirit of the man,” Jean said as she prepared to board the plane.
“So I’m proud of us.”