Meeting Mandela

Taissumani: July 25, 2008


This is a reprint of an article by the Nunatsiaq News history columnist, Kenn Harper, first published as a Taissumani column in 2008.

Iqaluit is blessed with an airport two miles in length, which means that it often attracts interesting and unexpected visitors.

From Hollywood movie stars to international political leaders, from rock stars to monarchs, the list of celebrities who have passed through this small city is impressive.

Some never intended to come here. Their planes land for fuel and are gone again shortly.

Some never leave the luxury of their private jets. Madonna famously refused to sign an autograph for an airport service worker. And when Robin Williams was asked if he would like to come into the terminal building, he glanced out the window and remarked, “I thought hell was a hot place.”

Others revel in the opportunity to visit — however briefly — a place they would otherwise never see. In Arctic Ventures store, I’ve bumped into Henry Morgentaler and former president Jimmy Carter. The list goes on.

But perhaps the most unusual visit to Iqaluit was that made by Nelson Mandela on Canada Day 1990.

It wasn’t an official visit. Mandela had been freed from his lengthy prison term in South Africa earlier that year. In June he made an eight-city tour of the United States, where he held rallies attended by hundreds of thousands.

The last rally was in Oakland, California. From there he left on a private jet bound for Dublin, the next official stop on his tour of triumph.

It was late in the evening that a very small group of Iqalungmiut heard the closely guarded secret that Mandela’s plane would be touching down in Iqaluit for fuel in the middle of the night. In fact it was about 3:30 a.m. when the plane finally arrived. Being mid-summer, of course, it was broad daylight.

We went to the airport, but were intercepted by the RCMP and not allowed to enter the terminal. A good thing, otherwise we might never have gotten near the great man.

Denied entry to the building, we gathered at the high fence that separated Canadian and First Air’s cargo facilities. The plane was parked at the refuelling tanks. No-one really knew if Mandela and his party would actually leave the plane. Finally, the passenger door came down.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela made reference to his long walk across the tarmac. “As I was strolling on the tarmac, I noticed some people standing at the airport fence,” he wrote. “I asked a Canadian official who they were. ‘Eskimos,’ he said. In my 72 years on earth I had never met an Innuit (sic) and never imagined that I would.”

In fact it was a cheer from our small crowd that attracted Mandela’s attention. 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.

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.

Our group numbered perhaps a dozen, Inuit and Qallunaat, adults, teenagers, and even a few curious kids out for middle-of-the-night bike rides. We spoke through the chain-link fence for perhaps 20 minutes. The irony of speaking to a man unjustly imprisoned for more than two decades through a wire fence was probably not lost on either side.

Mandela, wrapped with a blanket against the evening chill, was surprised that people knew of his long struggle and his release from prison a world away.

“What struck me forcefully was how small the planet had become during my decades in prison,” he later wrote. “Television had shrunk the world and had, in the process, become a great weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy.”

Security people approached him as he talked with us. They told him that he must go in to the terminal because VIP’s were awaiting him. He chided them gently, “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.”

All too soon the impromptu visit was over. In 1998, Nelson Mandela, then President of South Africa, was appointed to the Order of Canada. Three years later the Government of Canada honoured him for the great moral leadership he had provided to all of humanity, by declaring him an honourary citizen of Canada.

In Johannesburg in 2000, when Mandela met Premier Paul Okalik and Sheila Watt-Cloutier, then president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, he spoke of his first chance encounter with Inuit in Iqaluit on his unexpected visit ten years earlier. He had not forgotten.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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