Nelson Mandela’s loss felt in Canada, his ‘home away from home’

Nelson Mandela’s loss felt in Canada, his ‘home away from home’

South Africa will mourn today for Nelson Mandela, the internationally-beloved champion of peace and equality who fought to end racial apartheid. But the world, including Canada, will mourn with them.

Mandela passed away today at the end of a long battle against his declining health. Before his death, the 95-year-old former South African president gave his life to a struggle for equality in his homeland – a task that saw him branded a criminal and later named South Africa’s first black president.

The death of Mandela leaves South Africans mourning the loss of a beloved champion, a statesman respected the world over. Mandela was a force of peace. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize, his birthday is celebrated by the United Nations. Monuments and statues stand in his honour in countries the world over.

Mandela’s loss is felt here in Canada, as well – a country he once called his “home away from home.” In 1990, he chose to mark his release from prison by visiting Canada. He was named a Companion to the Order of Canada and later made an honourary Canadian citizen.

Canada celebrates its role in supporting Mandela's mission to bring constitutional democracy to South Africa where, before his successful election in 1994, only apartheid existed.

Mandela made a number of visits to Canada during his decades-long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. His first tour came only a few months after his release from prison at the end of a 27-year imprisonment for leading the resistance against white minority rule.

In 1990, in a visit shortly after the Meech Lake Accord died, Mandela said he was inspired by the compromises Canadians had managed to reach on constitutional reform.

"We too must be inspired by this manner of proceedings so that we also reach agreement about our own constitution as speedily as possible, in the interest of all the people of our country," he said, according to CBC News.

He visited Canada again in 1998 and spoke to some 40,000 children gathered in Toronto's SkyDome. It was here that Mandela launched his Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, in support of South African youth.

"When I go back to my country, I will be able to tell the children of South Africa that in Canada, they have friends indeed, who are ready to work with us for a better life for all children," he said at the time.

During the same trip, Mandela was heralded a “universal symbol of triumph over oppression” and became the first foreign leader to be appointed an honourary Companion of the Order of Canada.

His third visit to Canada came three years later and saw Mandela become the first living recipient of honourary Canadian citizenship. He remains one of only five people to receive such a title. Others include Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Aga Khan.

But his relationship with Canada was not always entirely positive. He speaks of such in his memoir Conversations with Myself.

According to the Globe and Mail, he recalls being heckled at a speech during his 1990 visit. A protester asked if he would spend a $5-million fund he received from the Canadian government on "murdering people." Mandela wrote that he tried to answer the question, but security roughly threw the protester out of the building before he could respond.

Later, when his plane stopped to refuel in Goose Bay, Labrador, he caught pneumonia while speaking with Inuit students who had gathered near the tarmac.

But even in this experience he found positivity. He wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:

I had never seen an Eskimo and I had always thought of them as people who are catching … polar bears and seals. As I chatted with them, I was amazed to find out that these were high-school children. … Although I was in the struggle, the freedom struggle, I should have … known that people anywhere, throughout the world, change from their less advanced positions.

Mandela made countless personal connections to Canadians during his lifelong mission.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford, a lawyer before she was a politician, worked alongside Mandela for a time, helping to coordinate the country's first all-race election in 1994.

It was then that Mandela was named South Africa's first black president. She considers him a personal mentor.

His vision and dedication is similarly remembered by the Toronto District School Board, which renamed a downtown school the Nelson Mandela Park Public School in honour of the anti-apartheid activist.

Mandela spoke to more than 1,500 Toronto students during his first visit to Canada. In an online post, TDSB executive officer Lloyd McKell recalls his visit, which led to the creation of the Mandela Student Fundraising Committee.

"Mandela’s remarks … contained no hint of bitterness or anger, but of compassion, hope and courage as he asked the students to continue supporting the children of South Africa," McKell wrote.

Mandela's death was of little surprise to anyone. He had been hospitalized five times in the past half-year.

Mandela previously announced suffering from prostate cancer in 2001, and suffered an acute respiratory infection in 2011. In 2012, he had surgeries for an abdominal hernia and to have gall stones removed.

His last public appearance was at the final of the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010. It was a moment of celebration for the nation, and Mandela would not miss it.

Shortly before his death, daughter Makaziwe Mandela said he was at peace.

"All I pray for as a daughter is that the transition is smooth. He is at peace with himself," she said. "He has given so much to the world. I believe he is at peace."