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Brian Mulroney was Canada's 18th prime minister.

In March, 1961, prime minister John Diefenbaker returned to Canada from a Commonwealth conference in London where he had helped to orchestrate the expulsion of South Africa because its apartheid system was incompatible with, and unacceptable to, the values of a democratic institution.

I was among the Progressive Conservative students gathered proudly at the Château Laurier to greet him that day. Five years earlier – at the age of 17 – I had travelled 18 hours by train from Antigonish, N.S., to Ottawa to vote for Mr. Diefenbaker at the leadership convention in large measure because of his vaunted reputation as a defender of human rights. That day, I knew that the trip had been completely worthwhile.

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Twenty three years after the Commonwealth conference, I became prime minister, having retained the deep interest in South Africa sparked originally by Mr. Diefenbaker's leadership. I had thought that over the years Canada's support of this issue was sometimes less enthusiastic than it deserved to be.

On Dec. 20, 1984, only three months after my swearing-in, I met with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the diminutive and morally powerful South African anti-apartheid leader, in my Langevin Block office. Near the end of the meeting, I sought his advice on what role Canada might play in the seemingly stalled efforts to free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid in South Africa: "Do you think a middle power like Canada could have an effective impact on the situation?" I asked him.

Bishop Tutu was vigorous in his response: "I think Canada can have an important, even a lead, role in translating morality into political action," he said as our conversation flowed, until we had taken up twice the allotted time marked in our schedules.

As we concluded our meeting, Mr. Tutu told me that he feared that because of so many other causes and demands on the world's attention, the fight for justice in South Africa would be forgotten. I told him that would not be the case as long as I served as prime minister of Canada. "Desmond," I pledged as he left, "tell your colleagues and friends that they can count on Canada." That day, Mr. Mandela had already been in jail for more than two decades.

I then told the cabinet that it would be a priority policy of my government to press the case for Nelson Mandela's liberation, the destruction of the apartheid system, the unbanning of the African National Congress ANC and the building of a non-racial democratic society in South Africa.

As it happened, Canada was uniquely well placed to do so as the only leading industrialized nation to be at once a member of the Group of Seven, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and soon La Francophonie and the Organization of American States.

Together with foreign minister Joe Clark, who provided sterling leadership and inexhaustible determination, we set about, along with our eloquent UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis, to impress upon some influential and reluctant world leaders the vital importance of keeping Mr. Mandela in the forefront of a major international initiative to help bring fundamental change to South Africa and justice to its most celebrated but aggrieved and sometimes forgotten son.

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The Tutu meeting and others with Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo triggered our unrelenting action that ended only years later with Mr. Mandela serving as president of South Africa and apartheid relegated to the dust bin of history.

Our role – and it was part of a larger process – was possible only because it was sustained and strongly supported by the people of Canada. Few initiatives met with such wide approval and appreciation as the determination of the government and all parties in Parliament to assist by every conceivable means in securing the freedom of this iconic and supremely consequential leader.

The battle was sometimes difficult and often challenging and it led to bruising exchanges with valued friends such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, but also to the discovery, for example, of the principled and courageous leadership of Australia's Bob Hawke, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda and India's Rajiv Gandhi.

Slowly the ground began to shift. Our case was made in every forum, some marked by outright hostility at Commonwealth meetings in Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur and others that featured the search for a reasonable compromise, such as the elegant private dinner at Buckingham Palace for seven Commonwealth leaders under the persuasive personal guidance of the Queen.

Eventually, as well, we were able to ensure that Mr. Mandela was included on all G7 agendas and became the highlight of UN General Assembly focus and attention.

And so it happened that, holding my four-year old son Nicolas in my lap, I watched in my den on the second floor of 24 Sussex Dr. as Nelson Mandela walked out of prison on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990, almost 27 years after being sentenced to life in prison.

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The next day, we spoke and he said: "There could have been no greater tangible evidence of friendship than your concern for me and my family and the strong action you and the government of Canada took while I was in jail to help us defend the interests of the new South Africa we want to build."

Because of the tremendous support he had received from Canada and our people, he concluded, he would like to make his first formal speech in a legislature after his release to a free Parliament in Ottawa.

Within a few months, as I watched him speak to the House of Commons – compelling, courageous, dashing, witty and brave – I knew that he would forever leave a major impact on the conscience of all people and nations around the world who valued liberty and freedom.

And I was pleased as well to have said in rebuttal to prime minister Thatcher at a meeting: "Margaret, in this great moral cause, I am going to place Canada clearly on the right side of history."

As I listened to Mr. Mandela's eloquent and moving tribute to Canada and her people that day, I knew that we all had succeeded.

Brian Mulroney has been appointed as a gold member of the Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo, the highest South African honour for foreign citizens for his work against apartheid.

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