12/06/2013 12:49 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Nelson Mandela's last-minute Montreal visit still inspires

Four months after Nelson Mandela was released from the South African prison that held him for 27 years, the resilient man stood in Montreal’s Champ-de-Mars with a beaming smiling, thanking the “beautiful, vibrant” city for its support.

“Even while we were in prison, we came to know this city as a home of the struggle against apartheid, a friend of our people, an enemy of racist tyranny and a source of strength to us, because the position you took served as assurance to all our people that nobody could deny us freedom,” he said.

Mandela wasn’t supposed to stop in Montreal on his two-city visit to Canada.

But Montreal had been a staunch supporter of a boycott organized by the National African Congress, which asked municipal and provincial governments to turn their backs on companies with South African interests.

Montreal got permission from the provincial government to discriminate against those companies, even if they were the lowest bidders on municipal contracts, and eventually the city turned Shell away because of its links to South Africa.

Mandela agreed to extend his visit to include Montreal, and on June 19, 1990, organizers scrambled to put together the logistics of the event.

Mandela's thanks

With less than 24 hours’ notice, more than 15,000 people gathered at Champ-de-Mars, the grassy expanse behind Montreal City Hall,  to honour the man who had served as a source of inspiration and strength for millions.

“I remember Mr. Mandela telling me how touched he was,” said Jean Doré​​, who was Montreal’s mayor at the time of Mandela’s visit.

“He knew that it was an improvised meeting, and he was astounded to see so many people. He was astounded to see people cheering and supporting what he was trying to do.”

In his speech that day, Mandela told the thousands gathered to hear him speak that the support from the citizens of the city would be remembered when the apartheid regime was abolished – a reality that wouldn’t be fully complete until he was elected South Africa’s first black president four years later.

“When that day dawns, as it soon must, it will be a matter of great joy to us to see the name Montreal appear on the roll of honour of those who stood with us to the end,” he said.

Doré sat on the stage as Mandela, flanked by children, a choir and city officials, delivered his gracious speech.

“It was one of the greatest moments of my political life,” Doré said, adding that he had about two hours with Mandela before and after the speech.

“His people were trying to push him to take the airplane as soon as possible, but he really wanted to meet people and talk to people because he knew what Montreal and Quebec had done – our part in the global movement that eventually brought the South African racist government to his knees.”

Before he was swept off to Toronto, Mandela also visited the Union United Church, which had a committee dedicated to the fight against the apartheid regime in South Africa. 

Mandela learned of the church's contribution in that fight and of its part in promoting his own release from prison, and he agreed to attend a service. 

The downtown church was packed, Dan Philip, the director of the Black Coalition of Montreal, remembers. 

“It was a moment of great joy for people," he said.

“It wasn’t a long service, but it was a moment of reflection, so to speak. to speak of who did what over time and so on. It was a moment where people were able to vindicate themselves for what they did or what they didn’t do and things like that."

"It was a great moment for us and I suppose for society as a whole.”