Canadian politicians are heaping praise on Nelson Mandela as the world reacts to the death of the human rights icon.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the world has lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, but emerged to help end apartheid in South Africa and become the country's president.

Harper called Mandela the most powerful symbol in the world for the struggle and success against racial discrimination. 

"Despite his long years of captivity, Mr. Mandela left prison with a heart closed to calls for a settling of scores. Instead, he was filled by a longing for truth and reconciliation, and for an understanding between all peoples," Harper said.

“He demonstrated that the only path forward for the nation was to reject the appeal of bitterness. His forbearance was legendary: his magnanimity spared all South Africans incalculable suffering."

Harper's office says the prime minister will travel to South Africa for Mandela's funeral.

Canadian politicians worked for Mandela

Liberal MP Irwin Cotler worked on the international legal team that supported Mandela while he was in prison for 27 years.

"Nelson Mandela was an inspiration not only for South Africa, but a global inspiration, and particularly for the young who saw in him a hope for a better world," Cotler said.

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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 honorary Canadian citizenship on Nov. 19, 2001. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Mandela embodied hope and was remarkable not only for presiding over the end of apartheid, but of setting up one of the world's great constitutions, Cotler said.

Mandela was "a person who had no bitterness in him, no anger in him," he added. "I think hope was probably one of his defining characteristics."

Mandela was made an honorary Canadian citizen on Nov. 19, 2001.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford worked for Mandela. In a statement, she called him "a towering icon" and a "giant of a man."

"I will always cherish the opportunity I had to work alongside him in the 1990s as part of a team that was steering South Africa out of apartheid, rebuilding its legal system, and leading to its first all-race elections," she said.

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South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela raises his arms as he is acknowledged by the Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and other members of Parliament in Ottawa, June 18, 1990. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Redford said she'll always remember Mandela as a dignified and kind man who used humour to diffuse tense situations.

"He taught me that the best advice comes from people who have been working in the trenches, and that leaders have to sacrifice," she said.

One of 'best examples of humanity'

Gov. Gen. David Johnston said Mandela is one of the "very best examples of humanity."

"He was a driving force for change and cared for the well-being of others. We have all learned so much from his fortitude, dedication and compassion," Johnston said in a statement.

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Former South African president Nelson Mandela and Prime Minister Jean Chretien are flanked by RCMP constables in Hull, Quebec, as they pose for photographs across the river from the Parliament Buildings. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"The legacy he leaves cannot be understated." 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called Mandela "an extraordinary example of indomitable courage and faith."

"It is a rare individual whose reputation for wisdom transcends time," Mulcair said.

"New Democrats join others around the world in mourning the loss of this exceptional man."

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau recalled his father's conversations with Mandela, which he said left the former prime minister "truly, truly moved" by Mandela's depth of conviction.

"I think one of the things that is most remarkable is just that [Mandela] took a moment of difficulty in his life and transformed it into an incredibly positive force for change for justice, for freedom, for his people to inspire people around the world," Trudeau said.

Mandela's conviction and ability to step above the fray, he added, is "an inspiration to anyone who wishes to serve their community and the world."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Mandela "was marked by two extraordinary things, among many: moral clarity and moral courage."

First Nations see 'kindred spirit' in 'Madiba' 

Assembly of First Nations leader Shawn Atleo said First Nations saw a kindred spirit in Mandela, calling him "a crusader for indigenous rights and human rights who believed in reconciliation and the basic dignity and value of every human life."

"Part of a family of hereditary chiefs, Mr. Mandela was given the name Madiba by the Thembu people in honour of an 18th-century chief and a clear recognition of the connection among all indigenous peoples and the tremendous leadership they have brought to the world," Atleo said.

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, speaking to CBC News Network, called Mandela's death an enormous loss.

"Nelson Mandela was unique in the sense that he was a genuine icon and one of the very, very few in the world," he said.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said few people have done more than Mandela to inspire the world.

"I know his life will continue to serve as a beacon for change, throughout South Africa and around the world. He taught us that nothing is impossible, that we have a responsibility to one another, and that courage is the triumph over fear.

The world is better for his presence, and we all mourn his loss."