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Nelson Mandela: A Towering Figure of Our Time

12/08/2013 11:20 EST | Updated 02/07/2014 05:59 EST

Recent decades have seen significant progress in race relations. In the United States, 40 years after the era of segregation against African-Americans, the country elected its first black president. Regardless of one's opinion of Obama's performance as president, his election represents a significant milestone.

While much still needs to be done, no doubt much progress has been made. This is true in South Africa where, while inequality and poverty (disproportionately affecting blacks) persists, there has been significant progress, notably the end of Apartheid. This was a system of segregation and discrimination which subjugated and denied rights to the country's majority black population.

The struggle against Apartheid in South Africa was a mass movement. However, one particular figure stood out, Nelson Mandela. His recent passing away -- while expected as he had been unwell for some time -- is a great loss, to South Africa and to the world.

Mandela was a towering figure of our time, a key person in the struggles for human rights and social justice. The 20th century was a century that saw some of the worse violence in human history, two world wars, brutal dictatorships, colonization of developing countries by imperial powers, and threat of nuclear war.

However, the 20th century (and the early 21st century) was a time of remarkable accomplishments. It was a time of decolonization as India and Pakistan peacefully won their freedom from colonial rule in 1947, and as decolonization swept Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s. This was also a period that saw great advances in civil rights, women gaining the right to vote in the early 20th century and an emphasis on workplace rights and respect in the mid-to-late 20th century.

It was a century which saw the civil rights movement in the United States, the fight for desegregation.

Here in Canada, the 1960s saw the relaxing of immigration laws which favoured whites, multiculturalism becoming an official policy, and from the 1970s onward, Canada emerging as a model of cultural diversity. This is not to suggest that Canada is perfect, inequality and poverty disproportionately affects immigrants and visible minorities in many areas, but nonetheless Canada serves as an example.

It was also a century that saw, in Canada, growing recognition of the injustices facing First Nations people, a greater -- if still far from incomplete -- recognition of their treaty and land rights.

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, who had been part of Nelson Mandela's legal team, stated that Nelson Mandela embodied the 20th century's key struggles, writing on twitter that "Nelson Mandela is a metaphor and message of the long march toward freedom, of the struggle for equality, of the struggle for democracy. The three great struggles of the 20th century are symbolized and anchored in his personal struggle in South Africa."

As Canadians, we can be proud of the role our country played in taking a firm stand against apartheid, in particular by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who sharply differed with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, as Mulroney called for strict sanctions against South Africa's apartheid government and affirmed his strong support for Mandela.

It is noteworthy that Canada was the first country Mandela visited after being released from prison, having seen Canada as a model of multiculturalism and human rights.

Mandela forgiving those who imprisoned him for 27 years, his emphasis on peace and reconciliation, serve as an example to Africa -- a continent that has been marked by war and political turbulence -- and to the world. Peace and reconciliation was key in establishing the multi-racial democracy which South Africa is today. To see, on the CBC, coverage from Johannesburg of a multi-racial crowd in the streets, singing and celebrating Mandela's life, upon the announcement of his death, is a positive testament to his legacy.

Mandela was a defining figure of our time, symbolizing what was good about the 20th and early 21st centuries, struggling against what was bad about this period. He is someone who symbolizes the accomplishments and progress in human rights and multiculturalism.

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Nelson Mandela 1918-2013