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.

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Former South African president Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd during a ceremony in Hull, Que., where he was presented with an honourary Canadian citizenship on Nov. 19, 2001. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Historians say Canada even served as a blueprint for Mandela when he finally took the helm of his country as president.

That 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, a 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.

Longtime ambivalence

"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.

Mandela's visits to Canada

Nelson Mandela visited Canada three times. Click here to read about his time in a country where he experienced what he called his "greatest moment ever outside South Africa."

Vern Harris, Mandela's chief archivist and head of memory programming at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, said the freedom fighter was aware of Canada's growing support for his cause during the 27 years of his incarceration.

"That solidarity meant a lot to the prisoners, it meant a lot to the organizations that were involved in the liberation struggle," Harris said in a telephone interview. "I think there was a strong appreciation for that long before he ever visited Canada himself."

That initial visit was made mere months after he was finally released on Feb. 11, 1990, although preparations had begun a few months before.

Zeib Jeeva, then an anti-apartheid activist in Toronto, remembers hearing  from Mandela's African National Congress in London in late 1989 that they were organizing a Nelson Mandela Reception Committee to celebrate his eventual release.

Jeeva, who grew up in South Africa, and some friends soon set up a similar committee in Toronto. After organizing a celebration on Toronto's Danforth Avenue the day Mandela was released, they went on to organize his first visit to Canada.

Jeeva told CBC News that visiting Canada was a priority for Mandela, thanks to Canada's leadership under Mulroney in calling for anti-apartheid sanctions.

Phenomenal aura

Jeeba said his first meeting with Mandela was unbelievable.

"The aura around him was just phenomenal."

Harris said Mandela made a point of accepting Mulroney's explicit invitation to visit as soon as possible.

"He was prioritizing countries which at that time had a particular significance to the liberation struggle. Canada was way up there as one of the first countries he visited after his release," he said.

Harris and Freeman were interviewed for this story before Mandela's death, when he was ailing.

Mandela's arrival on June. 17, 1990, marked the first of three visits during which both parties fairly outdid themselves with offers of thanks and praise.

Politicians spoke of Mandela's courage and convictions, while Mandela singled out Canada for upholding the values he hoped to see espoused at home.

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Nelson Mandela is all smiles after being introduced by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a dinner in Mandela's honour in Toronto on June 18, 1990. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

"Your respect for diversity within your own society and your tolerant and civilized manner of dealing with the challenges of difference and diversity had always been our inspiration," Mandela said during his first address to the Canadian Parliament.

Those words were not just idle flattery, Harris said. When Mandela was elected president of South Africa four years after his release, he and his government aides made a point of scrutinizing policies and practices from other countries that could serve as a model for an emerging democracy.

Canada, Harris said, served as a template in areas ranging from education to water treatment to social policy.

"When he talked about Canada providing an example and an inspiration, it was based on really hard engagement with Canada's experiences," he said.

Mandela's opinion of Canada never publicly cooled during his subsequent visits, during which he was lavished with some of this country's greatest honours.

Rare honour

He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest possible rank, during his second trip in September 1998.

For his final visit in November 2001, he became one of only five foreigners to be made an honorary Canadian citizen.

Adulation came from dignitaries and everyday people alike, with throngs of supporters turning out for most of his public appearances.

Mandela's popularity was most dramatically on display during the 1998 tour, which saw him address a rally of more than 40,000 schoolchildren in downtown Toronto. On that occasion, he heaped praise on a new generation of Canadians.

"You have made me feel like a young man again with my batteries recharged," he told the rally.

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Nelson Mandela shakes hands with a youngster after receiving a book as a gift in Toronto on June 19, 1990. (Hans Deryk/Canadian Press)

"The greatest joy has been to discover that there are so many children in this country who care about other children around the world."

Jeeva was one of the organizers of that event and said that now when he hears from someone who was at the event — "they are almost adult now" — they mention how Mandela left quite a mark on them. "They know about reconciliation, racism and stuff like that," Jeeva said.

Still, Harris said the sunny relationship Mandela had with Canada was occasionally dimmed by a passing cloud.

In his 2010 book Conversations with Myself, Mandela lamented the fact that Canadian police "roughly" ejected a heckler from one of his public appearances in 1990 without giving him a chance to respond to her concerns.

Rude awakening

Interactions with Canadians also shed light on his own preconceptions, according to the book. Mandela wrote of his first encounter with Inuit teens during a 1990 refuelling stop in Iqaluit (although the book incorrectly has the stop taking place in Goose Bay, Labrador), recollecting that he was surprised by their level of education.

"I had never seen an Eskimo and I had always thought of them as people who are catching ... polar bears and seals," he said.

"I was amazed to find out that these were high school children.... It was the most fascinating conversation, precisely because it was shocking. I was rudely shocked, awakened to the fact that my knowledge of the Eskimo community was very backward."

Occasional voices were raised in protest of Mandela's warm reception, notably then-Alliance MP Rob Anders who in 2001 blocked unanimous consent for a motion in the House of Commons on honorary citizenship for Mandela, reportedly telling two Liberal MPs Mandela was a "Communist and a terrorist."

The vast majority of Canadians, however, regarded Mandela as a hero and role model without peer.

Former prime minister Joe Clark summed up the majority Canadian view with his comments made the day Canada voted to officially grant Mandela the status that would make him one of our own.

"With a flick of his wrist ... Nelson Mandela could have triggered revolution and his country would be in flames," Clark said.

"He did not. He did the opposite."

With files from Daniel Schwartz