"The world remembers him as a great statesman as a hero in the struggle. In South Africa, we call him Dada, we call him father, which is how we remember him."

In Jonathan Snelgar's Gastown bread and coffee shop, Nelson the Seagull, the presence of Nelson Mandela looms large.

He and his sisters, Jodi Balfour and Lee Snelgar, even named their business after a song  — The Seagull's Name Was Nelson — often dedicated to Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.

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

"To go through what he went through and come out not hateful and to preach unity and forgiveness, it was amazing."

The news of Mandela's death on Thursday still came as a shock for Jonathan Snelgar, who was born in South Africa and moved to Canada three years ago.

Jonathan Snelgar

Vancouver baker Jonathan Snelgar, born in South Africa, said Mandela's death hit him harder than he thought it would. (CBC)

"There have been so many scares in the last few months that you almost dismiss it," he said. "Then my sister phoned me and said, 'He's passed on' and it hit me way harder than I thought it would. I had to sit down."

Jonathan said he was holding it together until an African couple came into the bakery.

"I lost composure completely and I was kind of surprised," he said. "You think you're preparing for it for a few months but … it's not actually someone you know personally, but you feel like you do."

'It feels like he's ours'

Jonathan's sister, Lee Snelgar, said it feels very surreal.

"It feels like he's ours, it feels like we have a claim to him," she said.

"Everyone I know feels he's their father figure. It feels very personal for a South African."

Looking back, Lee remembers the South Africa of 25 years ago, completely segregated.

He may have had good people around him, Lee Snelgar said, but ultimately Mandela was responsible for all the changes the country has seen. 

Lee Snelgar

Jonathan's sister Lee Snelgar says Mandela was a father figure to every South African she knows. (CBC)

"His character is not just symbolic — it really was him that people admired and loved. And as a South African, that's very hard to ever forget," she said.

"Our lives would be entirely different had we grown up in a South Africa that had not experienced democracy."

Jonathan and Lee remember their liberal mother and father teaching them that Mandela was a freedom fighter who did not deserve to be imprisoned.

"My parents taught me that he was a hero, a man to be respected and listen to," said Jonathan.

"One of the first books my mother pressured me to read was his book Long Walk to Freedom. I thank her for that — it was incredible.

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