National, international and intimate respects have now been paid to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. As his body now lays to rest in his childhood village of Qunu in the rural Eastern Cape, South Africa, I turn inward.
Back home for a few short hours before I depart again for a new UNESCO mission in Haiti, I am pondering Mr. Mandela’s true legacy, especially what it means for me and for Canadians, for all of us who care about justice, a better country, a saner world.
What can we learn from his life? How can we embody the values, just some of the greatness shown and lived by the man who spearheaded the struggle against the ominous crimes of apartheid? What legacy will we keep here in Canada?
It is striking that so many leaders of the world decided to join with political opponents, with people from vastly different horizons, as they journeyed to pay their last homage to Mr. Mandela.
U.S. President Barack Obama chose to travel with George W. Bush, before he shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro. Prime Minister Stephen Harper brought an unusual delegation on board the Royal Canadian Air Force Airbus – former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Kim Campbell, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, along with provincial and territorial premiers and two former governors-general, Adrienne Clarkson and myself.
I can tell you that the conversations aboard the plane were unique. I see it as highly symbolic that the gathering encapsulated the open, human values of the man we came to mourn, and whose life and achievements we came to celebrate.
This truly was a global wake, with widely relevant lessons.
The sentiments and the people brought together by Mr. Mandela’s passing speak perhaps most eloquently about the man’s most fundamental humanistic and ethical values.
A world of justice can be built only if we act justly with our opponents. A true community can come about only if we learn to work together, even when confronted by adversarial attitudes.
Just as Mr. Mandela’s singular personal power was able to transcend divisions, to unite people across barriers, this African leader taught us all that greatness of soul and unshakable personal ethics pave the way to true and lasting change.
While I prepared to board the plane back to Canada, I could not hold back the tears. Everywhere I laid my eyes, I saw the heavy hearts, the pensive glances, the resigned smiles. In stark contrast to the first flight, the return trip to Canada remained eerily silent for a few hours. As if we all needed to absorb what we had just experienced. As if all of this needed to land back home somehow.
As a student, with millions of others, I put my shoulder to the wheel of moving South Africa beyond the ugly confines of apartheid. Leafleting supermarkets, asking customers and store managers to support the boycott of South African goods.
And one day, the clamour from the streets joined the voices from our government, as Mr. Mulroney stood in defiance of partners in the United States and Britain who were resisting the call to abolish apartheid.
In his eulogy and praise for Mr. Mandela in Johannesburg, Mr. Obama said: “We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.”
Now is the the time for Canadians to look across this land, where chronic poverty, derelict housing, suffering children and avoidable deaths and diseases still prevail – perhaps only a street, a neighbourhood or a reserve away.
Mr. Mandela showed keen interest in the plight of Canada’s aboriginal and first peoples. He established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a model that Canada has since followed to help Canadians find the strength and the courage to bring truth and justice to our relations, and decide how to live together.
Our aboriginal brothers and sisters await a vast movement of all toward justice. Now is the time to land Mr. Mandela’s legacy back home, to move boldly and push with all our might toward justice.
Michaëlle Jean was Governor-General of Canada from 2005 to 2010; she is the Special Envoy for Haiti for UNESCO and Chancellor of the University of Ottawa.
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