As Indigenous Peoples across Canada mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela, the Inuit also fondly recalled the night his plane ran out of gas.
It was 1990, and Mandela was jetting around the globe a few months after his release from 27 years in prison, and he was en route from Oakland, California, to Dublin.
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Forget that it was 3:30 in the morning (albeit broad daylight, it being midsummer in the Arctic Circle).
“On July 1, his plane stopped in Iqaluit to refuel,” said Terry Audla, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the national Inuit organization. “News spread quickly among Iqalungmiut, who turned out in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of the quiet revolutionary.”
Stopped by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) from entering the terminal, the dozen or so onlookers gathered at an airport fence, gazing at Mandela as he crossed the tarmac to the terminal building, walking away from them.
“As he and his wife, Winnie, with a small entourage, walked slowly toward the terminal building, we realized that we would not have an opportunity to greet him unless we could somehow attract his attention,” recounted historian Kenn Harper in the Nunatsiaq News in 2008 in a column reprinted by the newspaper on December 5. “We let out a loud cheer and began to wave. He and Winnie stopped, pointed toward the fence, spoke briefly to someone, then made a 90-degree turn and began walking directly towards us.”
Mandela proceeded to converse with the group, through the chain-link fence, for about 20 minutes, Harper wrote. When security personnel tried to coax him away to meet "VIPs" in the terminal, Mandela told them, “There are no more important people in this town tonight than these folks who have come out to talk with me. I’ll be in when I’ve finished speaking with them.”
So it was that Mandela first met the Inuit in a stop that touched him enough to bear mentioning n his memoir, Conversations With Myself (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).
“In my seventy-two years on Earth I had never met an Innuit[sic] and never imagined that I would,” Mandela wrote, as quoted by ITK. “What struck me so forcefully was how small the planet had become during my decades in prison; it was amazing to me that a teenaged Innuit living at the roof of the world could watch the release of a political prisoner on the southern tip of Africa.”
Those very people plan to celebrate his life, the Nunatsiaq News reported on December 5, even though “Mandela inadvertently mistook Iqaluit for Goose Bay, Labrador, in the book, an error easily overlooked by those who had the opportunity to shake his hand,” the ITK statement noted.
The Inuit were not the only Indigenous Peoples to mark Mandela’s passing. The Métis Nation of Ontario memorialized the leader and noted that he had been made an honorary Métis when he visited Ottawa in 1998. The now-deceased Métis Senator John. B. Boucher presented him with a Métis sash, the highest honor bestowed by the aboriginal group made up of descendants of French traders and Indigenous Peoples. On the same visit, Mandela received the Order of Canada distinction from the Crown.
“Boucher had the privilege of wrapping the sash around Mandela’s waist and presenting Mandela with a honourary Métis name “Diamant,” which means Diamond in French,” the Métis statement said. “Mandela wore the sash proudly for the remainder of the day, even during his induction into the Order of Canada.”
To this day the portrait photographed for the occasion remains in the offices of the Métis National Organization’s main offices in Ottawa, Lipinski said.
“Mandela’s struggle for justice and equality holds deep meaning to the Métis. His courage and selflessness serves as an example of excellence to the world,” Lipinski said. “Mandela was a visionary hero; he truly ‘belongs to the ages.’ ”
First Nations lauded Mandela as well.
“Mr. Mandela was and is an inspiration to people around the world and will continue to be a model of courage and leadership,” Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo said in a statement. “First Nations saw in Mr. Mandela a kindred spirit, a crusader for indigenous rights and human rights who believed in reconciliation and the basic dignity and value of every human life.”
Atleo also noted Mandela’s relationship to the Thembu tribe of South Africa.
“Part of a family of hereditary Chiefs, Mr. Mandela was given the name Madiba by the Thembu people in honour of an 18th century Chief and a clear recognition of the connection among all Indigenous peoples and the tremendous leadership they have brought to the world,” Atleo said. “As Indigenous Peoples, many First Nations feel a special connection to Mr. Mandela’s lifelong efforts and achievements, and First Nations have honored him on many occasions.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted that Mandela was made an honorary Canadian citizen in 2001, having received the Order of Canada distinction in 1998.
“We have all learned so much from his fortitude, dedication and compassion,” Governor General David Johnston said in a statement upon Mandela’s passing. “Throughout his life, he overcame many hardships to become a powerful global figure for peace and equality; the legacy he leaves cannot be understated.”
Indigenous leaders said they’d like that legacy extended worldwide.
“Nelson Mandela was a true personal hero to Indigenous peoples around the world because of his greatest achievement in freeing South Africa from apartheid, a system many Indigenous peoples believe exists in Canada,” said AFN Regional Chief Stan Beardy on behalf of the Chiefs of Ontario. ““Mandela achieved the greatest feat by unifying whites and blacks in South Africa after the onslaught of British colonization experienced by Indigenous peoples in that country. The freeing of Indigenous Peoples from apartheid in South Africa is something Indigenous Peoples in Canada strongly aspire to.”