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Honorary Canadian Citizen

Mandela’s Legacy More Than Symbolic

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela emerged from twenty-seven years of imprisonment as a political prisoner of the South African government. On that memorable day, the world greeted his release with relief and jubilation. Mandela’s release signalled the beginning of the end of apartheid and began the country’s journey towards the first democratic government. He was elected president in April 1994.

Mandela’s approach to nation-building is perhaps the world’s most remarkable example of commitment to democratic ideals in our time. Consider for example his concluding words to the court in 1964 when he faced the possible death penalty for so-called treason: “I cherish the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities… It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Facing the prospect of death by the state, Mandela held fast to his principles.

Consider as well, that despite the suffering caused by apartheid and despite his long years of harsh punishment in prison, Mandela sought to pursue the path of negotiation, accommodation and reconciliation with his former enemies. For him, that was the only way to establish the foundation for democracy in his country.

Mandela’s concern for the poor, disadvantaged children of South Africa is well-known. While President, he donated one-third of his salary to those children through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. That same concern led him to declare to the students of Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park, Toronto in November 2001, that he loved them as if they were his own grandchildren.

As Canadians, we can be justifiably proud of our government’s role in pressuring the South African government to end the oppression of its people. Prime ministers from John Diefenbaker to Brian Mulroney consistently condemned apartheid. Mulroney led the Commonwealth effort to impose economic sanctions on South Africa and the call for the release of Mandela. Mandela thanked Canadians for their support on several occasions.

Canada recognized the special meaning that Mandela had for us by conferring on him the status of Honorary Companion of the Order of Canada and Honorary Citizen. The cities of Ottawa and Toronto named a prominent public square and a main street respectively after him. The Toronto and Peel public school boards named schools in his honour. Ryerson University presented him with an honorary degree. Recently, a commemorative Canadian Nelson Mandela stamp was issued.

These symbols of honour bestowed on Mandela are important reflections of our respect and admiration for this great man and what he has achieved. But what is more important is how we in our society reflect his vision in our personal, professional, and public lives; how we commit to building an inclusive society free from all forms of discrimination. That is the true legacy of Nelson Mandela. That makes his legacy more than symbolic.

We have made great strides in accommodating diversity in our country and are recognized around the world for our achievements in social and cultural integration. But we must continue to work harder at addressing those areas of our experience where racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination because of disability and social class create conflict and lead to differences in productivity and quality of life between groups. In particular, we need to resolve the fundamental inequities affecting the First Peoples of Canada.

If as a nation we pursue this path to a just, harmonious and inclusive society, we will reflect both Nelson Mandela’s vision and our own hopes for the kind of democracy we want for ourselves and for future generations.