Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mourning a hero

I once stood in the presence of Nelson Mandela.

It was 1998. Mr. Mandela was President of South Africa. He was on a state visit to Canada. He was invited to address the House of Commons. And I was a page in the Senate. 

There are few things glorious about fetching water and papers for members of the Senate. Save this one thing. Parliamentary pages are members of the honour guard of a visiting foreign dignitary.  

I will never forget that moment. Not for as long as I live. There we were. A group of 20 or so House of Commons and Senate pages, gathered in the basement of Centre Block. The Clerks of the respective Houses of Parliament were giving us our instructions. In a few minutes, we were to head upstairs to the foyer. We were to form two lines, through which then-Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Jean Chrétien, and his guest of honour were to walk on their way to the House of Commons. We were to make no noise. No applause, no talk. We were just to stand there like statues and respectfully watch as the greatest man of our time walked by. 

As we waited, we watched the news coverage of his visit. He had spent the morning meeting with Aboriginal leaders. Fitting given the parallels between Canada's reserve system and South Africa's apartheid regime. Cameras rolled as the Prime Minister's car pulled up to the front door of Centre block. We watched as Mandela emerged from the car. That image is forever etched into my mind. Mr. Mandela was wearing a Métis sash, given to him earlier that day by a Métis elder. I was so very struck by this, my own family history being intricately connected with the birth of the Métis Nation in Canada. Somehow, in that moment, I felt connected to this great man. 

On cue, this gaggle of pages of which I was a part made its way to the foyer to form Mandela's honour guard. As we stood there waiting, we were all so nervous. The solemnity and the importance of the occasion was not lost on any one of us. We had all been born into a world in the grip of apartheid. We had all grown up flipping through the pages of our parents' Time Magazine, which, during the late 80s, featured a story every few weeks about the tumultuous South Africa. We had all struggled to understand how it came to be that Nelson Mandela could be thrown in jail, simply because he believed that his people should be treated equally. We all understood the triumph that was finally his when apartheid died. 

And then, after standing around for what seemed like an eternity but what was probably really only five minutes, we heard footsteps coming down the hall. We heard voices murmuring in excitement. We saw the millions of flashes from the herd of reporters mulling about the foyer. 

And then we saw him. 

Nelson Mandela. 

The man who spent 27 years in prison for being black. 

The man who never stopped believing in his country's potential. 

The man who had an unending faith in humanity. 

The man with a heart so big and a spirit so indomitable that he forgave those who betrayed him, choosing instead to rebuild a nation rather than to let it be destroyed by hate. 

There, a mere few feet away, stood a hero. Still wearing a Métis sash. 

I am quite sure that I stopped breathing. Beyond all other sounds, I could hear my heart pounding violently. 

The Prime Minister, barely noticing that we were there, tried to lead his guest of honour quickly through the foyer. But Mr. Mandela paused. "Hello," he said, nodding in our direction. None of us said a word, having been warned that we were merely to melt into the background. "You are a quiet bunch," he said, his lips curling upward into a smile. 

And then, he stepped away from the Prime Minister and came towards his honour guard. His hands extended in friendship. "Thank you for your hospitality," he said, before turning back to his host. 

As the Prime Minister led him away, our eyes met. He had the warmest and wisest eyes that I had ever seen. He nodded at me. I fought an urge to reach out my hand to touch him. Instead, I mouthed "Thank you" as I shed a silent tear. 

And just like that, as suddenly as he came around one corner, he disappeared around another, whisked into the House of Commons to deliver what must have been an inspiring address. Although I can not say for sure. I honestly don't remember what he said. I only remember the overwhelming sense of awe that came from being only a few feet away from true - and humble - greatness.  

Today, the awe is replaced with an even more overwhelming sense of sadness that this bright light has been taken from the world. This world where there are so many trivialities. This world that, amidst stories about crack-smoking mayors and over-spending Senators, can seem utterly void of inspiration, direction, and hope. 

How will this world go on without him?

I do not know. 

But I do know this. Our lives - my life - is better because he walked this earth.

Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. You have suffered long enough. It's our turn to demand change.