Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a group of Canadian dignitaries have arrived in South Africa to pay their final respects to Nelson Mandela.

Harper is leading a Canadian delegation to the public memorial planned for Tuesday in Johannesburg.

En route to South Africa, he told reporters on the plane that he was “honoured” to be joined by former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Kim Campbell and Brian Mulroney.

“It really tells you about the long and leading history of Canada from the days of Diefenbaker and on, in the struggle that defined Mandela’s life,” Harper said.

On the plane, Mulroney said his government was committed to advancing “the cause of Nelson Mandela…and the destruction of apartheid in South Africa.”

Mulroney led Canada’s efforts to free Mandela from prison in 1984, and was instrumental in pressuring the South African government to end its apartheid regime through strong economic and political sanctions.

Chretien remembered the time he made Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen.

“He always called me his prime minister,” he told reporters. “He would say: ‘Hi, my prime minister.’”

Chretien once dubbed the vintage 1987 Airbus the delegation took to South Africa the “Taj Mahal” because of the high price to retrofit the plane. He swore he’d never take a trip onboard, but said this flight was an exception.

“I want to pay homage to a great human being and a great example for democracy,” he said.

Other dignitaries joining the Canadian delegation in South Africa include former prime minister Joe Clark, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, and Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

Redford met Mandela during his first visit to Canada in 1990, when she was a young lawyer specializing in constitutional and legal reform law. Not long after, she moved to South Africa to join a team responsible for laying the groundwork for the first all-race elections that led to Mandela becoming president, and to negotiate the country's first constitution.

"Lots of Canadian lawyers were involved," Redford said. "Young passionate lawyers who wanted to share their experience. A lot of us had an opportunity to spend time with him."

Also among the impressive Canadian contingent is former Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean. Jean travelled to South Africa in 2006 and had the opportunity to visit Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was held for more than 18 years. She said she was overcome with emotion when she walked into Mandela’s prison cell.

“Being in Robben Island where he had spent, in that space of confinement, so many years gave me the reality of the sacrifices and what he had suffered,” Jean said.

She said she has used Mandela’s message of peace and hope to inspire her own role as a leader.

“What Nelson Mandela gave me is the capacity of being myself, being who I am, using everything that is me in my role and this is what I did during my time as Governor General,”

“This is something I really admired in Mandela, his capacity to listen to people and his humility knowing that he didn’t have all the answers always,” she added.

Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler have also joined the delegation.

Iwrin, who served as Canada's Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, was a part of Mandela’s international legal team during his 27-year imprisonment and met the leader in 2001 when Mandela became a honourary Canadian citizen.

Mandela died on Thursday at the age of 95.

His body will lie in state from Wednesday through Friday. A state funeral for the former South African president is planned for next Sunday.

With a report from CTV’s Deputy Ottawa Bureau Chief Laurie Graham and files from The Canadian Press