Prime Minister Stephen Harper and three of his predecessors – Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell – flew to South Africa in a government Airbus. But not just any aircraft: The leaders were comfortably seated in what Mr. Chrétien once non-affectionately dubbed the "Taj Mahal," a reference to the front stateroom with which the plane was retrofitted when Mr. Mulroney bought a fleet of the jetliners during his time in office.
As he took one of his trademark strolls to the back of the plane, Mr. Chrétien openly lamented that he never used this particular aircraft during his three terms in office, expressly because of the fleecing he gave Mr. Mulroney to paint him as a free-spending politician with a taste for Gucci style.
Mr. Chrétien also expressed his disappointment that Canada doesn't put its former prime ministers to work for the country's betterment and to promote international relations after they leave office. "It's not our tradition," he said. "And it's too bad."
Mr. Harper spoke briefly of Canada's role in ensuring Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
"It really tells you about the long and leading history of Canada from the days of Mr. [John] Diefenbaker on, and the struggle that defined Nelson Mandela's life – the struggle against apartheid and the transition of South Africa to a modern, non-racial state," Mr. Harper said, flanked by Mr. Chrétien to his right and Mr. Mulroney and Ms. Campbell sitting across from him. Former prime minister Joe Clark will also attend the memorial.
But 30 years ago, it was a huge gamble on Canada's part to support the fight against South Africa's racist policies and to demand the release of Mr. Mandela, Mr. Mulroney said. The United States and the U.K. were "offside," he noted, and Mr. Mandela's African National Congress needed a G7 country in its corner.
"We knew we were doing the right thing, but on the other hand we also knew that it was a tough battle," he said.
Canadian leaders share respect for Mr. Mandela, said former governor-general Michaëlle Jean. "To see representatives of all political families together going to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela is totally in the spirit of the man," Ms. Jean said. "So I'm proud of us."
Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was also among those who joined the Canadian pilgrimage to pay homage to Mr. Mandela, along with the premiers of Yukon, Nova Scotia and Alberta and Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo.