Nelson Mandela’s Canadian Connection
December 8, 2013 Leave a comment
This week as the world remembers the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Canadians are recalling his special relationship with this nation. As Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio’s program The House, noted on Saturday,
If Nelson Mandela belongs first to South Africa and then to the world, he also belongs uniquely to Canada, where he was made an honorary citizen. It’s a special bond forged in the midst of the international struggle against apartheid by the Prime Minister [of Canada] who, against great pressure, brought sanctions against South Africa.
Back in 1985 the call for sanctions against the apartheid government on South Africa was an extremely contentious issue. Both President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were firmly against it. But that year Canada elected a new Conservative leader named Brian Mulroney who took a different view.
I felt when we came in that the support that Canada had been giving to Mandela and the ANC and the fight against apartheid was both tepid and inconsistent with our values. If Canada stands for anything internationally as a modern medium-sized power, we should stand for the protection of human liberties and civil rights, and here we were with the greatest human liberties struggle on the face of the planet going on, and we were not raising the flag with the vigor that we ought to have been. So I made this a priority of the government and indicated to the Cabinet that we would fight this at the United Nations, at the G7, at the Commonwealth, and at the summit of the Francophonie [an international organization of French-speaking nations].
This policy was carried out by Canada’s foreign minister, Joe Clark, who championed Canada’s opposition to the apartheid regime on the international stage. At the time, Canada was the only G7 nation to take such a resolute stance against apartheid.
Mulroney recalls that
with the United States and the United Kingdom out, Canada was the leading industrialized Commonwealth player and G7 player who was in full support of Mandela. They needed a white industrialized country in support of the ANC’s objectives. And we were it.
From his prison cell on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela learned on a BBC broadcast that “a young Canadian Prime Minister had taken control in Canada” and had made Mandela’s cause Canada’s top international priority. Mandela intently followed developments as the movement gained ground, and was immensely grateful for Canada’s leadership in pushing to end apartheid.
Soon after the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in May 1990, Mulroney recalls that Mandela phoned him and said,
Because of the tremendous support that Canadians have given me and given my movement, I would like to make my first trip to a democratically elected parliament to speak before the Parliament in Ottawa.
Mandela made that trip to Ottawa in May 1990 to tumultuous acclaim, and delivered what Prime Minister Mulroney called the most memorable speech to Canada’s Parliament since that of Winston Churchill in 1939. On the floor of Parliament he thanked Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, he said,
has continued along the path charted by Prime Minister Diefenbaker who acted against apartheid because he knew that no person of conscience could stand aside as a crime against humanity was being committed.
And addressing all Canadians, he stated,
We are deeply moved that today you honour … us, who were outcasts only yesterday, to experience if only fleeting, what it means to stand and speak at a place whose existence is based on the recognition of the right of all the people to determine their destiny, and whose purpose is to ensure that that right is guaranteed in perpetuity. We are made better human beings by the fact that you have reached out from across the seas to say that we too, the rebels, the fugitives, the prisoners deserve to be heard.
In May 1994 millions of viewers around the world watched as Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. He served in that capacity until 1999. During that time, Mandela distinguished himself in working to heal that nation’s wounds in the wake of the oppressive apartheid policies that until then had divided South Africa’s European and indigenous populations.
Alberta’s current Premier, Allison Redford (then a young lawyer) worked closely with Mandela during those years in trying to rebuild the legal system in South Africa. In 1996 Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the many crimes committed under apartheid, and it did much to heal that nation’s wounds.
Canada’s close relationship with Nelson Mandela continued, and on November 19, 2001, he became the first living person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada.
Belatedly, Canada came to recognize that South Africa’s apartheid laws had been constructed to a large extent on Canada’s own Indian Act of 1951 (updated from an earlier act of 1876), which placed the affairs of all “status” Indians directly under government controls. Canadian aboriginals have suffered greatly under the provisions of that act. Of particular concern is the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse experienced by generations of aboriginal children who were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools.
In 2007 Canada established its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission built upon Mandela’s model used in South Africa to hear testimony from survivors of abuse in the residential schools, and to heal the wounds suffered by Canadian aboriginals over a 120-year period. The commission expects to complete its work by 2014.
Mandela’s relationship with Canada has now come full circle. Just as Canada provided key support in Mandela’s struggle to establish justice for the native people of South Africa, now he has provided Canadians with a model for establishing a greater measure of justice for Canada’s aboriginal population.
Nelson Mandela’s influence and legacy reaches far beyond his homeland of South Africa. It is making an important difference in Canada as well. And for this we are truly thankful.