12/05/2013 04:53 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Leaders Mourn Mandela But Miss His Message

Getty File

Rolihlahla "Nelson" Mandela is a global icon. His legendary ascension from prisoner to President is the stuff of fairy tales. The real life prince of racial equality has left his global family, but the global family must not leave Madiba's lifelong labour behind.

Mandela was once denounced as a terrorist for simply challenging the apartheid regime of racial segregation and oppression to which officially adhered South Africa (a system inspired by Canada's Indian Reservations, to which other members of the British Commonwealth unofficially implemented as well). Sentenced to life in prison, Mandela had every reason to give up, to extinguish the light of hope, to go gently into that good night. Apartheid's absolute support from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan was a Goliath that no David would expect to overcome.


Photo galleryNELSON MANDELA IN CANADA See Gallery

However, a conscience grew among world leaders, notably in Nordic nations, and among artists in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lobbied for the racist regime to end, putting human decency ahead of lucrative economic trade with resource-rich South Africa.

On Mandela's 70th birthday, a star-studded "Freedom Fest" at Wembley stadium solidified the movement. The "Free Mandela concert" was broadcast in 67 countries and drew an estimated audience of 600 million, thus further awakening international consciousness around the somewhat forgotten plight of Black South Africans.

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
~Nelson Mandela

Just three short years later, South Africa would buckle under international pressure to unshackle Mandela's prison chains. Mandela would ascend from infamous prisoner to famous President of South Africa. By 1994, he was feted around the world, including at the White House. He was the first leader elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.

As world leaders mourn Mandela's passing, the disconnect between their praise for an iconic figure and their disengagement with his continuing struggle is simply unbearable. Lip service notwithstanding, what concrete actions have our leaders taken to address the remnants of institutionalised discrimination here at home?

Until Mandela's release, the vast proportion of [the Canadian] business community had been either complicit or indifferent to apartheid. [source]

That same complicity and indifference towards our coloured Canadian brothers plagues us today.

Racial profiling by Ottawa Police, Toronto Police and Montreal's SPVMpermeate our quotidian. None of these cities' mayors have denounced the practice. Only Toronto and Montreal fund any kind of police-related intercultural relationship-building programs -- the kind of reconciliation initiative Mandela championed.

Mandela's struggle for equal opportunity spread to the workforce, where he implemented mechanisms to give all citizens access to meaningful jobs. Brian Mulroney's government instated the Employment Equity Act to address systemic discrimination against women and minorities in our nation's public service in 1986. Despite statistics showing that the program hasn't bridged the gap for some target groups, PM Harper's government manufactured a controversy in a bid to dump the laudable initiative for the federal workforce to reflect the public it serves.

Mandela believed that equal access to quality education was tantamount to reducing the disparities in his country. In Canada, the silence around the high school drop-out epidemic among Aboriginal and Afro-Canadian boys -- exacerbated by a refusal to keep track of statistics on an ongoing basis in most of Canada -- speaks volumes about our leaders' selective concern for the well-being of Canadian youth. We can extrapolate the hierarchy of priorities: no funding is spared for new prisons.

As with the prison pipelines in the Southern USA and in Apartheid-led South Africa, the disproportional rate at which Aboriginals and Black Canadians are incarcerated in Canada is nothing short of obscene. It doesn't take a census expert to conclude that the Canadian justice system is not yet racially blind at the bottom. What about the top?

The USA appointed its first Black Supreme Court judge in 1967, at the crest of the civil rights movement. South Africa broke its judicial colour bar a year after Mandela's release, and the subject matter continues to provide fodder for the country's "transformation." In 2013, our racial rainbow hasn't yet reached the benches of the Supreme Court or the Federal Court of Canada. This is an area where Canada clearly lags. The national public broadcaster follows the same monochromatic trajectory.

South Africans remember those who risked their lives and died for racial equality. The USA celebrates milestone civil rights anniversaries with great fanfare: from the Greensboro Four to Rosa Parks and Medgar Evers. Those Canadians who led the struggle here at home -- Fred Christie, Hugh Burnett, Ruth Lor, etc. -- are all but forgotten.

We celebrate women's suffrage without acknowledging the Persons Case's racial exclusions, or the men like Nagindar Singh Gill who persisted in the fight for fairness. We borrowed from Aboriginal tongues to name our nation and its capital, but many of Canada's original residents still suffer unequal access to basic living conditions or drinking water.

Mandela's mandate is a work in progress, both in his native country and here in Canada.

"There is more work to be done. We say tonight, after nearly 90 years of life, it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now."
~Nelson Mandela on June 27, 2008.

In this time of international mourning, our leaders should wipe their crocodile tears and reflect upon their actions, or lack thereof, in fulfilling the promise of racial equality which Nelson Mandela stood for Mandela may no longer be with us, but his legacy, his message and his estimable struggle live on. They reside inside all of us who acknowledge that the pursuit of integration and equity belongs not in the apartheid past in a foreign land but in the bosom of our beloved nation.