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African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is welcomed to Canada by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a state dinner in Toronto.

World leaders gathered in South Africa this week to honour anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. The Globe and Mail spoke with former prime minister Brian Mulroney about his efforts to fight apartheid and his long-time friendship with Mr. Mandela.

You joined the Canadian delegation to the memorial services held Tuesday for Mr. Mandela. What was it like to be present for that event?

I was with the delegation, and you know, given my personal experience with Nelson Mandela, I viewed it simply as an occasion to say goodbye to a friend and a truly great man who accomplished in his lifetime more than an army could have done.

Even though the weather was bad, and the heavens opened with rain, and it was quite cold, in spite of it all, as far as I was concerned the sun was shining on Nelson Mandela because of the goodness he brought to the world.

It was an emotional day for a lot of people. How were you feeling, personally, during the ceremony?

I felt the speeches spoke to his character, his principles and his leadership. And the music spoke to his soul, the happiness that he brought and the optimism that he conveyed to everybody and that he maintained while in jail himself for 27 years. You know, any time we went out anywhere together … as soon as the music started he would break into that wonderful shuffle of his. He loved music and he loved the sight of children singing. So I was very pleased that there was a great deal of that at the celebration of his life.

Can you describe what your personal relationship with Mr. Mandela was like?

When I came into office, I felt the case of Nelson Mandela and apartheid – which was an enormous violation of human rights and individual liberties – had received really only tepid support from the government of Canada in the preceding years. And that was inconsistent with the values and the wishes of Canadians. And so I decided to make the case of Nelson Mandela the highest priority of the government of Canada in our foreign affairs.

The day or so after he was released he called me to say that he had heard while he was in jail that a young prime minister from Canada had made his case the No. 1 priority for the government and that he had followed it all those years and appreciated what we had done. And most of all [he] appreciated the tremendous solidarity of the people of Canada. And so he said, in recognition of that, he would be delighted to make his first speech at a democratically elected Parliament in Ottawa.

Our friendship really blossomed there and was maintained throughout, until the end of his life.

What was it like for you to deal with other world leaders, such as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, on the issue of apartheid?

Well, they took positions that were antithetical to those of Canada. We favoured the tightening of sanctions and indeed the rupturing of all relations with South Africa if that could bring an end to apartheid. They disagreed with that and so we had to disagree with them.

There continue to be conversations about Mr. Mandela's work and the distinction that is drawn between a freedom fighter and a terrorist. Did you struggle with that while you were prime minister?

No, I didn't really. Because many people in many countries who were deprived of basic freedoms engaged in efforts of liberation of various kinds. You never know exactly what took place but some of it was pacifistic and some of it involved a resort to arms.

And no doubt there was. When you deprive an entire people, the black people of South Africa ... of their most fundamental rights, there's going to be trouble, trouble in the streets. And Mandela was of course arrested and charged with these kinds of things and sent to jail. But by an apartheid government, by a very corrupt and evil government. And so you know you would want to be careful in how much stock you place in that kind of thing.

What I knew, of course, was that a great man had gone to jail and had spent 27 years in jail. And there had been no change in the system. A white minority continued to dominate and deprive a huge black majority of their most basic and fundamental rights. There's not a Canadian with a brain in his head that would have tolerated that for one second, for himself or for his family. And Canadians wanted me to press on and I did.

There was not, in the end, an opportunity for Canada to speak at the ceremonies. Would you have liked an opportunity to speak?

Had I been asked, of course I would have spoken. But I wasn't surprised … South Africa now has different interests and different attitudes and the organizers that put this together felt that they would be better off going with elected heads of government, other countries in the Third World and elsewhere. I was just delighted to be here and to say goodbye to a great friend, Nelson Mandela.

This interview has been edited and condensed.