VANCOUVER – Nelson Mandela’s walk out of Victor Verster prison on Feb. 11, 1990 was a defining moment in the end of apartheid. But despite being freed by the South African government after 27 years behind bars, he still had to call on foreign governments — including Canada — to pressure South Africa to end its policy of oppression.
As vice-president of the African National Congress (ANC), then-71-year-old Mandela was able to address the Canadian Parliament well before he was able to speak before South Africa’s government.
It was 23 years ago that he addressed a joint session of the House of Commons and the Senate, the first time in four decades a non-head of state had been given the special privilege.
“The fact that we have not had the opportunity to do the same thing in our own country, even as guests, emphasizes the iniquity of apartheid,” he told Canadian politicians on June 19, 1990.
Mandela praised Canada for supporting the anti-apartheid movement and asked the government not to lift trade sanctions on South Africa — a request then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney proudly obliged.
Canada lifted the sanctions in 1993 — the year before Mandela became president.
Twenty years earlier, the country took a stand against apartheid when John Diefenbaker played a key role in having South Africa excluded from the Commonwealth.
Although Mandela had many supporters in the Canadian government, there were detractors who didn’t welcome him with open arms.
When former prime minister Jean Chretien moved to make Mandela an honorary Canadian in June 2001, ahead of an upcoming visit to the country by the former South African president and his wife, Calgary-West MP Rob Anders went against the grain and was the only member of Parliament to vote against the designation.
Anders called Mandela a communist and a terrorist and shouted “no” when the Speaker of the House asked if all MPs agreed with the motion.
“I would say that 30 years from now Nelson Mandela will not be lionized as much as he is today,” Anders later said in an interview.
Anders’ dissent aside, the motion passed and Mandela became an honorary Canadian on Nov. 19, 2001.
Canada continued to recognize Mandela’s work as a humanitarian and his efforts to reconcile South Africa’s oppressive past, by making him a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1998. Along with the 192-member UN General Assembly, Canada supported a 2009 resolution to recognize Nelson Mandela International Day.
WATCH: Nelson Mandela speaking at Toronto SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) in 1998
“Nelson Mandela truly exemplifies commitment to a people, moral fortitude and service to humanity. He has also shown us how it is possible to be both a leading statesman and an exceptional human being. His work on conflict resolution and the protection of children’s rights only adds to his legacy,” then Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.
The first Nelson Mandela International Day was marked on July 18, 2010 — Mandela’s 92nd birthday.
Two years later, in July 2012, Canada’s ambassador to South Africa awarded Mandela, in absentia, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal. His grandson Mbuso Mandela accepted the medal on his behalf.
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