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How Nelson Mandela Touched Canada (And Vice Versa)

12/06/2013 03:53 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Entertaining 50,000 tweens is a challenge even for a Justin Bieber. It was no sweat for 80-year-old Nelson Mandela in Toronto's SkyDome on Sept. 25, 1998, when he launched the Nelson Mandela's Children's Fund Canada. After entering the stadium on a golf cart, wearing a very Canadian Hudson's Bay jacket, the president of the new South Africa leaped out of the vehicle. Then he literally danced his way to the stage to join the children in singing O Canada. He asked the kids to help him to empower poor and sick children in other nations to engage in "laughing and playing and doing all the things children do." He assured them they would achieve any dream they set for themselves; that hope and forgiveness win against hate and fear. Children and parents who had come to scoff, remained to pray and celebrate being in the presence of a truly great global citizen.

For an hour, Mandela held the attention of these tweens, encouraging tens of thousands of them to sing and dance in the aisles, watched by then prime minister Jean Chrétien, then Ontario premier Mike Harris and other VIPs. This performance by Mandela worked because it came from the heart. Creating a better world for children was his main goal. After all, his first real contact with one of his two daughters as a father was when she was 27. She had grown up while he was on Robben Island. Mandela clearly shares the view of H.G. Wells: history is a contest between education and tyranny.

Mandela's SkyDome performance was one of his many memories of Canada. He acknowledged Canada played a more positive role than most other western countries in helping the African National Congress to topple the apartheid state. It was an evil empire in which the 15 per cent white minority forced the non-white majority to live in poverty and squalor on less than 13 per cent of the beloved country.

His first memory would have been of powerful support from Prairie firebrand John Diefenbaker, in persuading the Commonwealth to take a stand against apartheid. This led to the racist Republic's "resignation" from the organization in 1961.

It was a shining moment for the often dysfunctional Dief, one of the first stories I covered for the Montreal Star after emigrating from South Africa.

All prime ministers after Dief rallied to Mandela's standard in those dark years, though activists in Canada wanted them to do more. This is why, when I was with Mandela in his retreat on the leeward side of Table Mountain, Cape Town, on Christmas Eve in 2005, his first questions were about the welfare of Mulroney, Clark, Turner and Chrétien.

In 1987, when Mandela's nominal superior, Oliver Tambo, was president of the African National Congress, he was offered help by Brian Mulroney. Mulroney then firmly asked his friends and allies, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to back -- however belatedly -- the cause for justice in South Africa after too many years of compromise and equivocation. Mulroney's support for the Mandela cause is one of the four pillars of his tenure, with free trade, a focus on green policies, and the bid to bring Quebec into the constitution with the Meech Lake Accord.

My own boss, John Turner, rallied to Mandela's standard by 1987 when he pledged that, as prime minister, he would cut diplomatic relations with the apartheid government.

We got a rare glimpse of Mandela, the human rights lawyer and conciliator, in Ottawa in 1990. As Mulroney was announcing a $5-million fund to support former prisoners in South Africa, a heckler yelled out that the money would be going to "murdering people." Mandela hoped he could assure her the ANC had sought to target only symbols and agents of the state. But security guards pushed her to the ground and hustled her out. They used what Mandela regarded to be unnecessary force to "throw her out." He said: "I tried to stop the whole thing, but I was late and so they hustled me out. They treated her very roughly."

By the time Chrétien came to power, apartheid had imploded, partly due to the strong economic sanctions supported by Canada. Chrétien supported the new non-racial regime and -- to the delight of his wife, Aline, a huge Mandela fan -- had Nelson Mandela installed as the first living person to be made an Honorary Canadian in 2001, an idea I had shared with political friends.

In Canada, Mandela nearly lost his life to pneumonia in 1990 when his plane had to land at Goose Bay, N.L., to refuel after he had been in Washington, as he related in his recent book Conversations With Myself, based mainly on a secret prison diary. He got out of the plane in - 15 C weather when he saw young Inuit lining the fences of the airfield; pneumonia was the consequence. Given the current campaign for a fair deal for our First People, it bears recalling what Mandela said about the Inuit youngsters. "I had never seen an Eskimo and I 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 schoolchildren ... it was the most fascinating conversation, precisely because it was shocking.

"I was rudely shocked, awakened to the fact that my knowledge of the Eskimo community was very backward ... although I was in the freedom struggle, I should have known that people anywhere, throughout the world, change from their less advanced positions." Later, Mandela told me supporting the cause of our First Nations would be a South African priority at the United Nations.

On the eve of Mandela's installation as an Honorary Canadian in 2001, we staged a cocktail reception in aid of his Children's Fund at the home of power couple Heather Reisman and Gerald Schwartz, in Rosedale, Toronto, charging guests $5,000 each. It was a sellout. One of the guests was Peter Oliver, the South African-born upscale restaurateur. As a direct result of meeting the charismatic Mandela, whose gravitas was matched by humour and compassion, Oliver's Leacock Foundation has already built three schools for poor black children in South Africa. They are twinned with top private schools in Toronto whose teachers and students visit South Africa to mentor South Africans -- a noble exercise that can be life-changing for both parties.

The legacy of Nelson Mandela is deep, and it will endure.

This post originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizenhttp://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/op-ed/Mandela+Canada/9253042/story.html.

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