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Nelson Mandela and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pose for photographers prior to a meeting in the Prime Minister's office June 18, 1990.Moe Doiron/Reuters

Not long after Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison in February, 1990, he made an international victory tour, visiting countries that had supported the liberation struggle. Canada, a strong foe of apartheid, was one of the first places he visited.

In a very unusual move, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney invited Mr. Mandela to address a joint session of Parliament even though he was yet to become an elected head of state.

Mr. Mandela seized upon the occasion to declare that he was "deeply moved," on behalf of those who had been "deemed sub-human" and "outcasts," to speak in a place "whose existence is based on the recognition of the right of all the people to determine their destiny."

Talking directly to Canadians, he said: "We are made better human beings by the fact that you have reached out from across the seas to say that we, too – the rebels, the fugitives, the prisoners – deserve to be heard."

That speech, which Mr. Mulroney later called one of the more cherished memories of his political life, marked the public recognition of the role that Canada had played in the political fight against apartheid.

The campaign stretched over 30 years and several political leaders, from John Diefenbaker in the 1960s to Mr. Mulroney, Joe Clark and a very young Alison Redford in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Less than a year after his Canadian Bill of Rights passed in the House of Commons, Mr. Diefenbaker turned his sights on racism elsewhere in the world. At the Commonwealth Conference held in London in March, 1961, he took a stand against apartheid, South Africa's institutionalized subjugation of blacks.

Six months earlier, in a whites-only referendum, South Africa had voted to reject parliamentary democracy and become a republic – yet it still wanted to be part of the Commonwealth. Other members were divided, so Mr. Diefenbaker proposed a clever feint: that, instead of rejecting South Africa, they declare racial equality an essential principle of the Commonwealth.

Rather than renounce apartheid, South Africa withdrew its application, making Mr. Diefenbaker the "hero" of the hour, according to journalist Peter Newman's book, Renegade in Power. Quoting the London Observer, he writes: "Not only did he provide a bridge between the old white dominions and the new non-white members; he also demonstrated the importance of somebody giving a lead."

Young politicos at the time, Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Clark were strongly influenced by Mr. Diefenbaker's example. When they were in power, they "insisted on bringing the South African issue to the forefront of foreign policy," Mr. Clark, who was prime minister (1979-1980) and then secretary of state for external affairs in the Mulroney cabinet, recalled in a 2012 interview with The Globe and Mail.

"We quite rightly thought of this as part of our heritage and obligation."

Mr. Mulroney took up the challenge after coming to power in September, 1984. He writes in his Memoirs that apartheid was "anathema to me," equating it with "the same degree of disgust that I attached to the Nazis – the authors of the most odious offence in modern history."

The following July, his government announced a list of economic and political sanctions against South Africa, and bolstered them two months later. Then, at the Commonwealth Conference in Nassau that same month, Mr. Mulroney personally led the campaign to persuade Margaret Thatcher to toughen Britain's stand and that the Commonwealth "must respond to the quickening pressure for change in South Africa."

In addition to private correspondence and conversations with Mrs. Thatcher, the Commonwealth newcomer declared in his opening remarks: "It is imperative that we all signal together that there will be common, worldwide and sustained pressure against apartheid – until apartheid is ended."

Before the meeting adjourned, Mrs. Thatcher grudgingly agreed that a group of "eminent persons" drawn from member countries should visit Mr. Mandela in Pollsmoor prison and try to promote dialogue with the government of South Africa to urge the dismantling of apartheid. As well, leaders issued a unanimous accord denouncing apartheid, banning government loans to South Africa and cutting off funds for trade missions to the country. A Commonwealth sub-group – Zambia, Zimbabwe, India, Britain, Canada, the Bahamas and Australia – agreed that, if "true progress" did not occur within six months, they would meet to "reassess our position."

On his way home from the conference, Mr. Mulroney addressed the United Nations in New York. "Canada is ready, if there are no fundamental changes in South Africa, to invoke total sanctions against that country and its repressive regime ...," he said. "If there is no progress in the dismantling of apartheid, relations with South Africa may have to be severed absolutely."

He kept up the pressure with a new round of Canadian sanctions in June, 1986, and He also maintained his campaign to dissuade Mrs. Thatcher from her position that sanctions were "immoral" and her belief that Mr. Mandela was a terrorist and a Communist, meeting her in private in Montreal a month later. In August, the sub-group met again in London, adopting further punitive measures (such as bans on investment, new air links, tourism promotions, and government contracts and assistance programs) and recommending the rest of the Commonwealth nations impose them as well.

Before at the Commonwealth's 1987 meeting in Vancouver, Mr. Clark, then Secretary of State for External Affairs, went to South Africa to consult Mandela supporters about the best way to proceed. Canada proposed to strike a Commonwealth Committee of Foreign Ministers, under the chairmanship of Mr. Clark.

Mrs. Thatcher, resolute in her intransigence against sanctions, accused Canada of rank hypocrisy. By way of retort, an emboldened Mr. Mulroney closed the meetings by saying, "Almost unanimously, we came to the conclusion that sanctions do work, that they shall continue to be applied, that they must be applied more intensively. That is the message which, with the exception of Great Britain, we send out from Vancouver."

And so they did. Mr. Clark's committee included approximately 10 foreign ministers and "kept the pressure up." he said, meeting every two months (rather than every two years, as the Commonwealth did) and issuing "a new range of sanctions."

Alison Redford was among those working behind the scenes for Mr. Clark on the Mandela file. A political activist from the time she was a teenager in Calgary, the future premier was 23, fresh out of law school and impressed, she recalled in a 2012 interview, by the fact that "Brian Mulroney was passionate" about apartheid.

She became so involved in the campaign to free Mr. Mandela that, when he toured Canada in 1990, she was one of a select few from Mr. Clark's office to travel with him. Later she moved to South Africa with a Calgary-based NGO and worked as a technical adviser on constitutional and legal reform issues in the high-level negotiations that eventually led to universal suffrage and the historic 1994 election in which Mr. Mandela become the country's first democratically elected president.

She was fascinated watching Mr. Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid leader, F.W. de Klerk, hammer out a new constitution that was "the foundation for everything that came next: the constitutional court, the human rights commission and the elections."

Exiles had returned from all over the world to argue and imagine what the new South Africa should look like. "They would often turn to Canada in a critical way and say, 'This is what you did: Explain it to me. Why did you do that? How does it work? What are the problems?'" Ms. Redford recalled.

These questions have had long-term ramifications. They forced Ms. Redford to examine Canada's system and make sure she understood it so she could participate in the conversation. That process of looking at her country from halfway around the world helped to shape her thinking when she entered politics in Alberta a decade ago.

Like a boomerang, Canada's stand against apartheid had come full circle as a political influence.

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