Following a moment of silence, strains of "Inkozi Sikele Afrika," South Africa's post-apartheid national anthem, filled the hall bearing some of his famous adages at Nelson Mandela Park Public School, where the country's late president visited a decade ago.
Kayla Negus, one of the relatively few white faces at the school in the heart of what was until recently seen as a ghettoized, low-income neighbourhood, said Mandela's work had a personal effect on her.
"When he was born, he didn't have rights because white people thought black people shouldn't have rights," Kayla said.
"That was very bad but I'm glad Nelson Mandela did something because I wouldn't be having my friends here if he didn't do anything about it."
Fellow student Jahney Christmas agreed.
Mandela, she said, was important both as "the founding father of our school" and for bringing an end to South Africa's brutal system of racist segregation that left the black majority utterly disenfranchised.
"Apartheid was when black people and white people couldn't be in the same place as each other," Jahney said.
Flags at the school — and others across the Toronto district — flew at half-staff in honour of Mandela, 95, who died Thursday after a long illness.
Standing next to a large portrait of the Nobel peace prize winner at the front of the hall, speakers praised Mandela as an icon of reconciliation, a man who left prison after 27 years without hate to become the country's first democratically elected president.
"In these times of political upheaval and political leaders who unfortunately far too often lack integrity we bear the name of the man who was all about integrity," Jason Kandankery, principal of the school, told the special assembly.
"It would have been so easy to come out of prison with hate in his heart and wanting to repeat the violence that was done to him, but he didn't do that."
Mandela visited the school, formerly known as Park Public, on Nov. 17, 2001, when it was renamed in his honour. He was also made an honorary citizen of Canada during that visit.
In a speech to students in the same hall that day, Mandela spoke of being honoured to be with them as the "future leaders of the world."
On hand that day was vice-principal Ainsworth Morgan, then a teacher, who was raised in the gritty downtown-east neighbourhood. The experience, he said, was a life-changing moment.
Mandela showed the importance of never giving up, education and resiliency and "ideals that he not only spoke about but that he lived," Morgan said.Suggest a correction