12/06/2013 06:44 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Nelson Mandela remembered by Canadians

Flags are flying at half-mast in South Africa after President Jacob Zuma announced the death of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, but the mourning transcended borders, with Canadians also feeling the loss.

Buskers on Vancouver's Commercial Drive sang about Mandela's passing. 

"It's a song about being the best that you can be," said the female singer. "So, I think that's appropriate."

A vigil honoured Mandela at Nelson Mandela Park public school in Toronto. Candles lined the school steps, with a framed photo of him in the centre.

"I feel privileged to go to his school," one student told CBC News.

On Friday morning, students will attend a special assembly. The same drummers who played for Mandela when he visited the school in 2001 will play for the students and staff.

Winnipeg resident Stella Lejohn hails from the same South African village as the nation's former president. The two lived on the same street before Mandela's arrest.

"[I remember] what a strong, determined person he was —​ full of jokes, very jovial, very friendly with everybody," she says. "He was determined to liberate South Africa one way or another. He gave up a lot. He was a very self-sacrificing person, including his family — he was away from home so much."

She hoped Mandela would live to see one more Christmas, and says it's "very sad" that didn't happen.

"It's a great loss for the country and for the world, I think. He touched so many people and he did so many things for so many."

'I want that Nelson Mandela hug'

For CBC's Suhana Meharchand, Mandela meant freedom for her and her family, who immigrated to Canada from South Africa. She recalls one story from her childhood in her home country — a story that she says her family always tells "whenever we get together at Christmas, Thanksgiving."

Meharchand was four years old and out for a day on the beach with her family in Durban, South Africa. She was sobbing, desperately wanting to ride a Ferris wheel and devastated that her father said no. Meharchand says her father struggled to explain to his young daughter that she couldn't go on the ride "because you're not white."

Thirty-two years later, Meharchand met Mandela and told him that story, saying, "Thanks to you, Mr. Mandela, when I visit South Africa with my children they can go on any ferris wheel they like."

In 2001, Meharchand had the opportunity to meet Mandela again — this time at Ryerson University when he and his wife, Graca Machel, were receiving honorary degrees.

During her public address, Meharchand took the opportunity to hug the dignitary and his wife.

"After that, I said to the audience, 'I will hug you and pass this hug on,'" she says. "You would not believe the number of people that came up to me after that event and said, ‘I want to hug you because I want that Nelson Mandela hug.'"

Jonathan Snelgar and his two sisters own a bread and coffee shop in Vancouver. Its named after The Seagull's Name Was Nelson, a song often dedicated to Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.

The three siblings were born in South Africa, and Sneglar says his parents taught him Mandela was a hero, urging him to read his book, Long Walk to Freedom.

"South Africa is by no means a perfect country, but it's an incredible place — and it's all thanks to him," he says.

"He was the height of morality. He was the most important person that I didn't know, if that makes sense. He was everything."

'This man will live forever'

Outside a screening of the new movie retelling Mandela's life story, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Nicole Morgan remembered the movie's protagonist.

"It makes me proud to know that this man will live forever," she says, explaining that future generations will still be learning about his legacy.

"He's a hero to the nation, so I'm sad," says Morgan. "But, at the same time, he's home now. He can rest."

Bond Frayer now lives in Winnipeg, but voted for Mandela in the election that resulted in South Africa's first black president.

"I wish he was a little younger because, you know, you wanted more from him," he said.

Thato Makgloane left South Africa to study in Canada and says that trip may have been impossible if not for Mandela.

"If that generation of the Mandelas had not gone through what they did, I would not have the fortune to live in the freedom, in the democracy that I do today," he said.