Harper will attend a public memorial for Mandela on Tuesday in Johannesburg, as well as his lying in state in Pretoria on Wednesday.
He's being accompanied by three of his predecessors — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Kim Campbell, all of whom were invited by Harper to fly on the prime ministerial plane to attend the service. Joe Clark, meantime, is already in Africa and will join the Canadian delegation when it arrives in South Africa.
"He was a great, great man," Chretien said of Mandela as he boarded the plane.
Harper and his wife, Laureen, waved to the assembled media on the tarmac at the Ottawa airport as they got on the plane, a chilly sunset serving as their backdrop.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair also joined the delegation, but not Justin Trudeau, the Liberal leader. Instead Quebec Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who was part of Nelson Mandela’s international legal team during his 27 years in prison, was also travelling on the plane. A spokesman for Harper's office said the Liberals decided the slot they were offered on the plane should go to Cotler because of his deep personal connection to Mandela.
Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo was also on board. Former Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, Premiers Darrell Pasloski of the Yukon, Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil and Alison Redford of Alberta are also travelling to South Africa with the prime minister.
"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, so I'm proud of us," Jean said as she prepared to board the plane.
Redford, a lawyer specializing in constitutional and legal reform law, worked for Mandela in the early 1990s in efforts to rebuild South Africa's legal system and lay the groundwork for the first all-race elections that led to him becoming president.
Mulroney spearheaded Canada's efforts to free Mandela from prison and pressure South Africa to end apartheid, while Chretien was prime minister when Mandela was granted honourary Canadian citizenship in 2001.
Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95.
His body will lie in state from Wednesday through Friday.
A state funeral for the former South African president is planned for next Sunday.
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