Nelson Mandela remembered by Canadians

Flags are flying at half-mast in South Africa in honour of Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, but signs of mourning for the anti-apartheid icon were on display all around the world, including across Canada.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper signs a book of condolence for Nelson Mandela on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Flags are flying at half-mast in South Africa in honour of Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, but signs of mourning for the anti-apartheid icon were on display all around the world, with Canadians among the millions of people who were feeling the loss of a man whose impact resonated far beyond the country he transformed.

"All Canadians share South Africans' mourning for and celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela," Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote in a bilingual note of condolence, written half in French and half in English. "We have witnessed a life for the ages and mourn the loss of an example for us all."

Harper wrote the note in a book of condolences that was set up on Parliament Hill Friday for MPs and senators to leave messages.

Members of the public can sign a separate book of condolence at the South African High Commission at 15 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. It's open to the public from 12 p.m to 4 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. next week. People can also sign Canada's official condolence book online.

A public book of condolence will remain at the South African High Commission in Ottawa throughout next week. (Tom Parry/CBC)

Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis knew Mandela through his friendship with his third wife, Graca Machel, and visited with him at his family home in Johannesburg on several occasions. On Friday, he told the CBC's The Current that Mandela was the same man in person that the world saw in public.

The iconic leader of the anti-apartheid movement had "particular regard and affection for Canada," Lewis said, because of former prime minister Brian Mulroney's involvement in the efforts to end South Africa's oppressive regime of racial segregation and get Mandela released from prison.

"He was fascinated by Brian Mulroney, and he was fascinated by the depth of our conviction against apartheid, Lewis said shortly before departing for South Africa to attend the week of mourning being held in honour of Mandela.

Lewis said he expects to find South Africans grieving but that their pride in what Mandela did for their country will transcend their grief.

Mandela's legacy is to demonstrate to the world that you can have political leaders who "radiate warmth, generosity of spirit, principle  all the things that he conveyed," Lewis said.

"I think that that's the legacy: that human decency can triumph if you just give it a chance," he said.

Vigils, impromptu commemorations

Ordinary Canadians also expressed respect for Mandela's ability to inspire decency in people through the power of his own actions and personality.

In Vancouver, buskers on Commercial Drive sang about his passing. 

"It's a song about being the best that you can be," said one of the women singing. "So, I think that's appropriate."

A vigil honoured Mandela at Nelson Mandela Park public school in Toronto. Candles lined the school steps, with a framed photo of him in the centre.

"I feel privileged to go to his school," one student told CBC News.

The school held a special assembly Friday that included performances by the same drummers who played for Mandela when he visited the school in 2001.

Winnipeg resident Stella Lejohn hails from the same South African village as the nation's first black president. The two lived on the same street before Mandela's arrest.

"[I remember] what a strong, determined person he was —​ full of jokes, very jovial, very friendly with everybody," she said. "He was determined to liberate South Africa one way or another. He gave up a lot. He was a very self-sacrificing person, including his family — he was away from home so much."

She had hoped Mandela would live to see one more Christmas was "very sad" that didn't happen.

"It's a great loss for the country and for the world," she said. "He touched so many people and he did so many things for so many."

'I want that Nelson Mandela hug'

For CBC's Suhana Meharchand, Mandela meant freedom for her and her family, who immigrated to Canada from South Africa. She recalls one story from her childhood in her home country — a story that she says her family always tells "whenever we get together at Christmas, Thanksgiving."

Meharchand was four years old and out for a day on the beach with her family in Durban, South Africa. She was sobbing, desperately wanting to ride a ferris wheel and devastated that her father said no. Meharchand says her father struggled to explain to his young daughter that she couldn't go on the ride "because you're not white."

NHL pays respects

Even hockey came to a standstill to mourn the loss of Mandela.

At the Toronto Maple Leafs game Thursday evening at the Air Canada Centre, players and spectators joined in a moment of silence minutes before the puck dropped.

Thirty-two years later, Meharchand met Mandela and told him that story, saying, "Thanks to you, Mr. Mandela, when I visit South Africa with my children, they can go on any ferris wheel they like."

In 2001, Meharchand had the opportunity to meet Mandela again — this time at Ryerson University when he and his third wife, Graca Machel, were receiving honorary degrees.

During her public address, Meharchand took the opportunity to hug the dignitary and his wife.

"After that, I said to the audience, 'I will hug you and pass this hug on,'" she said. "You would not believe the number of people that came up to me after that event and said, ‘I want to hug you, because I want that Nelson Mandela hug.'"

'The height of morality'

Jonathan Snelgar and his two sisters own a bread and coffee shop in Vancouver named after The Seagull's Name Was Nelson, a song often dedicated to Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement.

The three siblings were born in South Africa, and Sneglar says his parents taught him Mandela was a hero, urging him to read his book, Long Walk to Freedom.

Vancouver baker Jonathan Snelgar, born in South Africa, said Mandela's death hit him harder than he thought it would. (CBC)
"South Africa is by no means a perfect country, but it's an incredible place — and it's all thanks to him," he says.

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

Outside a screening of the new movie of Mandela's life story, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Nicole Morgan remembered the movie's protagonist.

"It makes me proud to know that this man will live forever," she said, explaining that future generations will still be learning about his legacy.

"He's a hero to the nation, so I'm sad, but at the same time, he's home now. He can rest."

Bond Frayer now lives in Winnipeg but voted for Mandela in 1994 in the first democratic election held after the end of apartheid.

"I wish he was a little younger, because, you know, you wanted more from him," he said.

Vancouver resident Thato Makgolane left South Africa to study in Canada and says that trip may have been impossible if not for Mandela.

"If that generation of the Mandelas had not gone through what they did, I would not have the fortune to live in the freedom, in the democracy that I do today," he said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?