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Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with Phil LeBreton, 88, a Normandy campaign veteran from Montreal of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, at the Canadian military cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer on Saturday. (CHRIS HELGREN)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper walks with Phil LeBreton, 88, a Normandy campaign veteran from Montreal of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, at the Canadian military cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer on Saturday. (CHRIS HELGREN)

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Harper pays tribute to Canadian soldiers Add to ...

Paying tribute to the men who died during the D-Day landings 65 years ago, as well as the survivors, Prime Minister Stephen Harper Saturday called for a renewed commitment to fight against tyranny around the world.

The peace and prosperity born from the carnage of the Second World War, he said, oblige the victors "to share our good fortune with others, including those elsewhere who to this day endure violence, oppression and privation."

Mr. Harper spoke at the American war cemetery here, a vast carpet of green grass studded with nearly 9,100 gravestones, during a ceremony that had many of the elderly veterans and their families in the audience tears.

Some sat in the open air in wheelchairs. A few held great-grandchildren on their laps. Just over the dunes was Omaha Beach, the site of one of the deadliest of the battles that day in 1944 when Allied forces stormed the Normandy coast to establish a beachhead in occupied France.

Mr. Harper said the war changed the face of Europe. It changed the lives of the men who fought it, he added, and they in turned changed Canada.

"It was their most spectacular achievement, but it was certainly not their only achievement," he said. "For having fought against oppression, racism and cruelty here in Europe, they would return to Canada and turn their resolve to building a society more fair, more equal and more compassionate than the one they had left."

Mr. Harper also took pains to praise the Canadians fighting in Afghanistan, who he said are fighting "to bring light and hope to a people who have long known only darkness and despair."

They are the heirs, he added, to the ideals that motivated the country's 25,000 paratroopers, sailors and soldiers who participated in the D-Day battles.

"They are defending the same principles - freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law," said Mr. Harper, speaking later in the afternoon at a smaller ceremony to honor the Canadian troops who had landed further west along the northern Normandy coast at Juno Beach.

"Never dismiss these things as mere abstractions," he said, as a chilling rain poured down on the 100 or so people, some of them French residents of the villages liberated by Canadian troops.

During the main ceremony at the American cemetery, under sunny skies, American President Barack Obama gave the most personal, down to earth of the tributes.

He spoke of his grandfather who landed in France six weeks after the landings to fight in the European theatre. He talked of a great-uncle who was participated in the D-Day battles. "At the hour of maximum danger," he said, talking of all the men who fought that day, "men who thought of themselves as ordinary found in themselves something extraordinary."

That daylong assault, he said, has kept its grip on collective memory not only because of "the sheer improbability of this victory" but also "the clarity of purpose with which this war was waged."

Mr. Obama did not refer to the wars that followed, either in Iraq or now in Afghanistan. But he said the fight against Nazi Germany was not about competing interests but about "competing visions of humanity."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Prince Charles also attended the main ceremony, although only Mr. Brown spoke. The prince had been added to the guest list only last week, after a flap over the failure of either France or the British government to secure an invitation for the queen.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy lavishly praised the Allied soldiers, making special mention of Canadian forces, who "had volunteered for service in the earliest days of the conflict, not because their country was threatened but because they were convinced it was a matter of honor."

Had Canadian and American soldiers not crossed an ocean to fight with the British and French in the war, he added, "What would have happened to us?" Their aid, he said, helped usher in the united Europe today at peace.

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