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Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants Canadians not to be shy or embarrassed about their patriotism, even though most tend to associate "boisterous displays of nationalism" with other countries.

In a rare speech to the B.C. Legislature today, the Prime Minister spoke of what it means to be Canadian, apologizing at times for the wrongs the country has done but challenging citizens to be patriotic during the Olympic Games and "celebrate together."

The subtext of his speech was that Canada is a confident country now, and ready to "stand on guard for itself."

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And he even injected a little shout out to his government's recession-busting Economic Action Plan. Canada "has shown during this global recession, and it will show during these Games, that it can compete and win against the very best," he said according to prepared remarks.

Mr. Harper was speaking in Victoria on the eve of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Games. He has been in British Columbia since yesterday and is also expected to take in some events.

His speech to the legislature is a "first," he pointed out, saying "no Prime Minister has ever formally addressed this great assembly" since B.C. joined Confederation in 1871.

In keeping with his theme of patriotism and pride, he spoke of the risks and sacrifices athletes must take to win, comparing them to the risks and sacrifices of Canadian troops in Afghanistan. He said says Canadian soldiers are serving not "for conquest and advantage but simply to spread our gifts of freedom, democracy and justice to make the world a little safer, a little better."

This was as an emotional speech that Mr. Harper has ever given. But it was not a speech without controversy.

First, there was an issue as to who actually invited who. In his remarks today, Mr. Harper thanked the Speaker of the House "for providing me with this special opportunity."

Reports out of Victoria last week suggested that the Prime Minister, through his office, had invited himself to the legislature. Premier Gordon Campbell said later the Speaker had extended the invitation.

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And then there is the issue of the Prime Minister speaking to a legislature that is actually in session while the House of Commons in Ottawa is shuttered because of his decision to prorogue. The Liberals have been having lots of fun with this.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff joked last week that perhaps the Prime Minister was travelling to the Victoria legislature to prorogue it. And yesterday, the Liberals released a letter from Mr. Ignatieff to B.C. MLAs: "I am writing to you as fellow parliamentarians... to ask you a favour.

"Prime Minister Harper will be addressing your legislature tomorrow. We think that having the Prime Minister of Canada address the B.C. Legislature is a commendable way to mark the Winter Olympics coming to British Columbia. So I want to congratulate you on this important event.

"Here in Ottawa, we haven't been quite so lucky. Not only can we not get Mr. Harper inside our legislature these days, but he's actually gone to the extreme of shutting down Parliament altogether."

So he asked them to ask questions of Mr. Harper about the environment, job creation and his bullying of independent federal watchdogs, such as the former commissioner of the RCMP Complaints Commission and Military Police Commission.

"I know this is a long shot," he wrote. "Mr. Harper absolutely refuses to answer questions that make him uncomfortable, especially when they come from the media or from his fellow elected officials. But given the unprecedented situation, I'm sure you will agree that it is worth the try."

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Mr. Ignatieff is coming to Vancouver for the opening ceremonies.

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The Prime Minister, meanwhile, used this speech too to point out that these Games are about more than just sports.

For Canada and British Columbia, he said, these sorts of events serve as "historic markers of where a community is going and how its people see themselves."

He also used his platform to speak of the character of Canadians, saying that "when we have done wrong … we have tried to learn from those wrongs." He included the Chinese head tax and the Indian residential schools as examples of misdeeds for which the government apologized.

And in a curiously-worded passage, he spoke of the "things" that have been "done around the world in the name of national pride or love of country that would have been better left undone."

"Yet, we should never cast aside our pride in a country so wonderful, in a land we are so fortunate to call home merely because the notion has sometimes been abused," he said.

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Concluding, the Prime Minister said the country "will ask the world to forgive us this uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism, of our pride, to be part of a country that is strong and confident."

(Photo: Olympic fans wait for the torch to pass by in Vancouver's suburbs today. Getty Images)

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