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Former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin shakes hands with former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon before their bilateral meeting in New York on Sept. 15, 2005. Sharon died Jan. 11, 2014, at age 85.TOM HANSON/The Canadian Press

Canadian leaders past and present are remembering former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, a controversial figure known for his battlefield exploits and efforts to reshape the Middle East.

Sharon, who served as a general in the Israeli army and later as defence minister, was prime minister from 2001 to 2006, when Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were in power in Canada.

But it was Stephen Harper, who took office a month after Sharon suffered a stroke that put him in a coma, who had the highest praise for him on Saturday.

Harper called Sharon "a renowned military leader" who "pursued the security of Israel with unyielding determination that was recognized by friends and foes alike."

Harper said in a statement that Sharon played a central role in the Israeli government for several years, changing the political landscape through his leadership and vision.

Sharon was "one of the architects of modern day Israel and one of the nation's staunchest defenders," Harper said.

Sharon died Saturday at age 85, after being in a coma for eight years.

As a general and defence minister, Sharon was known for his hard-line policies. But as prime minister, he gradually shifted his approach and withdrew Israel's settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005.

Paul Martin was Canada's prime minister at the time.

Martin recalled having a discussion with Sharon at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and said Sharon "was certainly not what I had expected given his previous military history."

"We all know of his record as a soldier, and he was a tough soldier," Martin said in an interview Saturday.

"As prime minister, he took what I believe to be a much more open view and it was clear that his priority was how could he achieve not simply temporary peace, but lasting peace."

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien said he only met Sharon once, but remembered him as a man of "strong convictions."

Chrétien agreed with Martin that Sharon appeared committed to achieving peace before his stroke.

"Sometimes when you face reality ... you have to change your views, and he did," Chretien said in an interview.

"It's a sign of humility and common sense."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar issued a statement of condolence on behalf of the New Democrats, calling him "a significant figure in world history and an influential leader who dedicated his life to serving his country."

Canada's Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, meanwhile, praised Sharon for his actions both in wartime and in peace.

"We salute Prime Minister Sharon, for his dedication to the land and people of Israel, for his statesmanship, and for his courage in taking bold steps in the search for stability and peace for Israel and its neighbours," said the group's chairman, David Koschitzky.

Chris Alexander, the Conservatives' Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, will represent Canada at Sharon's memorial.

Harper won't be attending but is scheduled to visit Israel for the first time later this month.