The country that bestowed its highest accolades and even honorary citizenship upon Nelson Mandela was often described by the legendary freedom fighter as a source of inspiration throughout his struggle for racial equality in South Africa.
Mandela found sympathy in Canada for his cause when he himself was not able to fight for it, allies who supported his mission during his long incarceration, and adoring devotees who welcomed him as a native son upon his release.
Historians say Canada even served as a blueprint for Mandela when he finally took the helm of his country as president.
That fellow feeling lasted until Mandela’s death. South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement of Mandela’s death at a news conference late Thursday, saying “we’ve lost our greatest son.”
Scholars say Canada’s appreciation for Mandela took root long before he had garnered global praise for his role in bringing an end to apartheid rule in South Africa and championing equality for blacks throughout his home country.
Linda Freeman, professor of political studies at Carleton University specializing in South African Studies, said grass roots anti-apartheid organizations began forming across the country as early as the 1970s.
Church groups, community organizations and Canadian chapters of Mandela’s African National Congress mobilized efforts to resist the regime even as Mandela himself languished in prison serving a life sentence for plotting to overthrow the government.
Their efforts to lobby both Ottawa and the Canadian business community fell on deaf ears for some time, Freeman said, adding prime ministers from John Diefenbaker to John Turner did little to curb a prosperous trading relationship with South Africa.
“Canada had a long, very undistinguished record of being totally ambivalent towards South Africa,” Freeman said in a telephone interview from Vernon, B.C. “. . . The most we would do for a long time would be to condemn apartheid in the United Nations, but staunchly support trade and investment. It was a fairly hypocritical policy.”
That changed when Brian Mulroney took power in 1985, she said, adding he quickly emerged as a vocal champion of Mandela’s cause.
He broke ranks with other western leaders by loudly speaking out against the apartheid regime while imposing strict economic sanctions against the government, she said.