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Nelson Mandela greets people as he walks with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on his arrival in Ottawa, on June 17, 1990.Wm. DeKay/The Canadian Press

Fen Osler Hampson is chancellor’s professor at Carleton University and the author of Master of Persuasion: Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy.

A framed personal letter from Nelson Mandela hangs on the wall outside of Brian Mulroney’s office.

“On the tenth anniversary of our democracy,” Mr. Mandela wrote, “one recalls the momentous time of our transition and remembers the people involved both within and outside South Africa. As prime minister of Canada, you provided strong and principled leadership in the battle against apartheid … South Africans today acknowledge the importance of your contribution to our eventual liberation success.”

Most Canadians are familiar with the historic role that Mr. Mulroney played in first securing CUSFTA, a free-trade agreement with the United States, followed by NAFTA, which added Mexico. This reversed Canada’s plummeting economic fortunes, and generated record growth and prosperity for the three North American countries for decades thereafter.

But less well-known is that, under his leadership, Canada was seen as a global champion for human rights because of his principled stance on ending apartheid. Not only did Mr. Mulroney press for stricter sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime, but he championed the rights of black South Africans everywhere he could – in the General Assembly of the United Nations, the G7, the Commonwealth and in one-on-one meetings with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

At one memorable meeting with Ms. Thatcher at Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, where her plane had touched down on its way back to London from Vancouver, Mr. Mulroney took up the case of sanctions. Canada’s undersecretary of state, James “Si” Taylor, who was with Mr. Mulroney, recalled: “At this meeting, she ranted on for half to three-quarters of an hour. She scorched him up and down and sideways.”

In contrast, Mr. Mulroney was polite and restrained. The conversation ended abruptly when Mr. Mulroney said to Ms. Thatcher, “You will do a disservice to the U.K., placing it on the wrong side of history. I am putting Canada on the right side of history.” She scoffed, “We will see what history says about that.” His retort was a bull’s eye: “You can bet on that.”

But it was not just in his position on apartheid that Mr. Mulroney put Canada on the right side of history. He did the same when he ordered his officials to organize shiploads of food and medicine to deal with the 1984 famine in the Horn of Africa that the rest of the world was ignoring.

Mr. Mulroney further transformed Canada’s relations with the rest of the world when he made Canada a full-fledged member of the Organization of American States, the principal juridical and political intergovernmental body in the Western Hemisphere – a decision previous governments eschewed. The Francophonie, otherwise known as the commonwealth of French-speaking nations, formally came into existence when Canada and Quebec took their respective seats with his approval.

The prime minister also played a vital role in persuading U.S. president George H. W. Bush, with whom he had a very close personal relationship, to secure both UN and NATO support before taking military action to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the Gulf War. As the Cold War ended, Mr. Mulroney also urged Mr. Bush to follow his instincts and support the reunification of Germany, which Ms. Thatcher and French president François Mitterrand vigorously opposed. Canadians of Ukrainian descent will never forget that Mr. Mulroney formally made Canada the first Western country to recognize an independent Ukraine on Dec. 2, 1991.

Canada’s first truly “green” prime minister, Mr. Mulroney doggedly pursued an acid rain treaty with the United States to save Eastern Canada’s lakes, rivers and forests. Under his leadership, Canada was also the first to ratify the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer in 1985 and put teeth into the convention when it hosted the Montreal Protocol negotiations in 1987. At the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992, Mr. Mulroney leaned heavily on Mr. Bush to support the biodiversity treaty, one of the few concrete initiatives to emerge from that conference.

As a business leader-turned-politician, Mr. Mulroney was a seasoned and practical negotiator. He understood the importance of forging strong personal ties with his fellow world leaders, the closest of which were with two American presidents – Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush – who trusted and respected him. It meant he could speak truth to power, and they sought his counsel on the momentous global issues of the day.

“Under Brian Mulroney’s leadership, Canada punched well above its weight on the world stage,” former U.S. secretary of state James Baker wrote. Yet “Brian Mulroney also understood that one of the major sources of Canada’s global influence rested on building strong and durable ties with the United States and its leaders.”

Do you have a favourite memory from meeting Brian Mulroney?

The Globe and Mail wants to hear from readers about their stories and meetings with Mr. Mulroney, who was known as much for his charm as his political savvy. Where and when did you meet him? What do you remember most about that experience? Share your experience below.

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