12/05/2013 05:41 EST | Updated 02/05/2014 05:59 EST

Nelson Mandela Restored My Faith in Politics

If ever proof were needed that one person can change the world, Nelson Mandela was that proof.

His unwavering commitment to peace, tolerance, justice, and equality embodied those very concepts. Mandela inspired a movement, transformed a country, and reshaped our understanding of what the world could be.

He was a giant of humanity, one of the great men and women of our generation. His passing represents an enormous loss -- not just to the millions of South Africans who gained freedom and the franchise as a result of his efforts, but to the billions of people on every continent who Mandela allowed to believe in a better world.

I count myself among them.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I grew up following Nelson Mandela. He lost his freedom around the same time I was born in 1963. Growing up in a progressive Catholic household, we followed closely the happenings in South Africa. From the assassination of Steve Biko to the uprisings in Soweto, the events in apartheid South Africa were omnipresent.

Mandela was sequestered on Robbins Island. But the world continued to hear his voice from a distance and heed his call for exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on apartheid. Be it in the UN or the Commonwealth -- or, in my house and countless others, through the boycott of anything from South Africa -- people around the world took a stand for equality and democracy.

For many people my age, the anti-apartheid movement was our chance to get involved. We had been too young to join in the anti-war demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s. South Africa was a clear ideological fight, akin to fighting fascism in the 1930s and 40s. We pushed our governments and institutions hard to take action, be it in banking, sports or diplomacy.

These were heady days. We had a troika of conservative leaders: in the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher; in the United States, Ronald Reagan; and here in Canada, Brian Mulroney. With the leadership of his External Affairs Minister Joe Clark and the influence of Canada's UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis, Prime Minister Mulroney diverged from his Conservative cousins in the U.K. and U.S. and stood strong against apartheid -- heeding the call of Mandela.

Canada's stance in those days continues to be a source of pride for all of us.

Mandela's release from prison in February 1990 fuelled the optimism of all those who believed in the causes of justice and equality. His release only furthered his stature as a true statesman and humanitarian. He rejected hate. He forgave his captors. He demonstrated what real love and solidarity meant. He ensured that reconciliation would be genuine and lasting.

He left people hopeful -- not because of his words alone, but ultimately because of his actions that showed his love for justice and commitment to peace.

I remember vividly hoisting my niece on my shoulders at the Ottawa airport in 1998 to catch a glimpse of Madiba. It was a poignant moment. Three years later, Mandela became an honorary citizen of Canada, the first living person to receive such an honour.

For me and many other Canadians, Madiba gave us something to believe in. He restored our faith, not only in the power of a just cause, but in politics itself.