Four months after his release in 1990 from decades of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela visited Toronto.
At first glance, the space above Asteria Souvlaki Place at 292A Danforth Avenue drew little attention to itself. Until February 11, 1990, its occupants were happy to keep it that way. Not advertising to the world that this was the local office of the African National Congress (ANC) was intended to protect staff from potential harm. When word arrived that day from South Africa that Nelson Mandela was free after over 27 years of imprisonment, 292A Danforth went public by offering itself as a place for Torontonians to celebrate the news.
Politicians and union leaders spoke to over 1,000 people gathered on the street that evening. Mayor Art Eggleton, who had proclaimed February 11 as Nelson Mandela Day, told the crowd that “the people of Toronto have joined with freedom-loving people the world over.” Chants of “Long live Mandela” rose from Danforth Avenue.
Mandela’s release was viewed as a positive sign in the battle against South Africa’s apartheid policy, a fight for which Toronto was a hotbed of activity during the 1980s. Boycotts and divestitures of holdings in companies with ties to South Africa became the norm for educational institutions. Protests targeted businesses that continued to operate in the increasingly demonized country. The Toronto Board of Education organized annual anti-apartheid conferences for high school students.
One high-profile effort during this period was the Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival. Poet Ayanna Black raised the idea during a United Way of Greater Toronto black development committee meeting earlier in the year. “We wanted to galvanize the community and emphasize this was something to concern everyone, not just blacks,” she told the Star. A foundation for the Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival, headed by Toronto Board of Education consultant Lloyd McKell, began working on who should appear. They secured singer Harry Belafonte as honorary chairman and scheduled an appearance by 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. Though criticism of its perceived involvement in a political activity forced the United Way to change its role from festival sponsor to supporter, the charitable organization continued to play a key organizing role.
The result was an eight-day festival in May 1986 featuring basketball games, club crawls, fundraising dinners, rallies, readings, and theatre. A Sun editorial hailed it as “truly a warm week in our community as people of all philosophies and colours came together against the evil of racial segregation.” The festival climaxed with a speech by Tutu at Queen’s Park on May 30, where he was the first foreign dignitary to address the Ontario legislature in 34 years. Wearing a yellow “Rally Against Apartheid” T-shirt, Tutu urged 10,000 attendees to support economic sanctions against the South African regime. “There is no doubt in my mind, in my heart, there is no doubt in the hearts of those who are in prison, there is no doubt in Nelson Mandela’s heart,” Tutu declared. “There is no doubt that we are going to be free!”
After gaining his freedom four years later, Mandela undertook a six-week globe-trotting tour intended to increase international pressure to dismantle apartheid and raise funds for the ANC. The legend that had grown around Mandela during his imprisonment made travelling with him, according to ANC colleague Joe Slovo, “like travelling with Elvis.” The Canadian leg of the trip started a busy week in Canadian history, whose end saw Elijah Harper raise an eagle feather to kill the Meech Lake Accord, and the federal Liberals choose a little guy from Shawinigan named Jean Chrétien as their new leader.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney greeted Mandela and his wife Winnie on the tarmac in Ottawa on June 17, 1990. “We bring to you a message of hope,” Mandela told his first Canadian audience. “We now see a light at the end of the tunnel. We see the end of the road of a hard and costly struggle. We have come to tell you that beyond the horizon lies a future South Africa that will be as glorious as it is humane.” The following morning, he addressed a joint session of Parliament before flying to Toronto.
Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander greeted the Mandelas, their entourage, and federal External Affairs Minister Joe Clark when they landed at Pearson around 2 p.m. They were welcomed at an Air Canada hangar by nine-year-old Nnaumbua Farrell, whose mother Joan was overcome by the moment. The high school teacher told Mandela she was so happy; could she hug him? He laughed as he fulfilled her request.
The first scheduled stop was a rally at Nathan Phillips Square, but the grueling pace of the tour—eight public speeches during his 50 hours in the country—caught up to Mandela. While he rested at a hotel, Winnie took his place outside City Hall. She was greeted by dancers, ANC flags, and a crowd of 8,000. Though some people were teary-eyed not to see Mandela, Winnie assured them he would be on hand for a 6 p.m. speech at Queen’s Park. She received an Ojibwe talking stick which, according to the Sun, she could “knock with until South African President F.W. DeKlerk opens the door for the democratic process for all of South Africa.” Vendors in the square enjoyed steady business selling clothing and other Mandela souvenirs, which irritated some attendees. Scarborough teenager Tricia Jarrett told the Star that she came “to see a great man, and here they are, profiteering.” This didn’t stop her from buying a $15 T-shirt.
Following a parade up University Avenue, Mandela spoke to an estimated crowd of 30,000 people at Queen’s Park. He received honorary citizenship from Mayor Eggleton, who was booed by the crowd. Other speakers, such as activist Dudley Laws and provincial NDP leader Bob Rae, received a warmer welcome. Mandela gave a half-hour speech thanking Canadians for their support in fighting apartheid over the years. “We are confident that victory is in sight,” he reflected. “But as in a steeplechase race, the last hurdles are the most difficult to overcome. As we enter the last lap, we call on the people of Canada to gather and redouble their efforts and endeavors in support of our struggle.” As he spoke, fists rose amid the crowd as they chanted his name. Some attendees took extraordinary measures to see Mandela speak—a heart patient from Cochrane signed himself out of Toronto General Hospital to attend.
The Mandelas wound down the day with a 1,500 seat dinner at the Westin Harbour Castle. Along with dignitaries ranging from former Ontario Premier William Davis to Metro Toronto Police Chief Bill McCormack, they dined on borscht, veal tenderloin, and peaches and wine from the Niagara Peninsula. Mulroney, also present, announced that the federal government would commit $5 million for the repatriation of South African exiles and the reintegration of political prisoners. Mandela called the prime minister a courageous man, noting that his commitment to aiding the anti-apartheid cause was “a source of wonder.”
Mandela’s only public appearance in Toronto on June 19 was an address at Central Tech to 1,000 students gathered from across Metro. Despite an hour-and-a-half delay, he received an enthusiastic welcome. “As they were waiting for Mandela to come in,” Olivia Chow, then a school board trustee, recalled in an interview with Torontoist, “we announced that he is walking down the hallway. The entire auditorium of students was clapping, stamping their feet. The entire building was shaking, the excitement was so intense. As he walked inside, the entire place erupted.”
The poor treatment of black students in South Africa was discussed. Mandela mentioned an incident in Kimberly where police raids on students in their homes resulted in arrests, assaults, and book confiscations. “They are only demanding a better education and better school facilities,” he noted, “but it is difficult to understand the manner in which the police are reacting even when you make the allowance that we are dealing with a rather brutal community which has never known the art of addressing the concerns of the black community in a peaceful way.” He urged the audience to help raise funds to support the education of students who fled South Africa.
Chow admits that she was “awestruck” by Mandela. “To be in front of a person that transcended hate and lived his life based on love and justice and equality and hope…it’s hard to describe that feeling. It was just inspirational.” She says students who were there still tell her how they felt when he walked into the auditorium that day.
The entourage moved on to Montreal later that afternoon for a brief stop before heading south of the border. Among the honours he received were a tickertape parade along Broadway in New York City, and the distinction of being the first private black person to address a joint session of Congress. Mandela returned to Toronto in September 1998 to address over 40,000 students at the SkyDome. He was also present in November 2001 for the official renaming of Park Public School in his honour.
“Mandela’s visit was more than a chance for Canadians to pay tribute to a principled man whose long fight for freedom and equality now seems surer of victory than at any time in his 71 years,” observed a Star editorial. “It was a reminder to them not to take democratic right for granted. It was a challenge to build on the foundation of democracy a Canada tolerant of diversity, mindful of its rich cultural heritage, and united in the common purpose of equality and opportunity for all.”
Additional material from the June 19, 1990 edition of the Globe and Mail, the June 21-27, 1990 edition of Now, the May 5, 1986, February 11, 1990, February 12, 1990, June 17, 1990, June 18, 1990, June 19, 1990, and June 20, 1990 editions of the Toronto Star, and the June 1, 1986 and June 19, 1990 editions of the Toronto Sun.