CAEN, France — Prime Minister Stephen Harper implored Canadians on Saturday to remember the sacrifices of soldiers who 65 years ago charged into the teeth of withering German fire on Juno Beach and not to dismiss the ideals those men represented.
In what is expected to be one of the last great gatherings of elderly veterans from that campaign, Harper said that freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are the principles our veterans fought and died for on the beaches of Normandy.
“Never dismiss these things as mere abstractions. They are the very foundation upon which our lives of peace and prosperity are built,” he said in an address to hundreds of veterans on the beach. “And they are the very lives to which all of our fellow human beings aspire. It is only when these values are in peril, when we have to defend them, that we can truly understand their worth as our soldiers did.”
Those same values are behind Canada’s current war in Afghanistan, Harper told veterans, who sat in the pouring rain at Juno Beach, the sight of the Canadian landings on June 6, 1944.
Out of all the Western leaders who spoke at ceremonies up and down the ancient, leafy Norman coast on Saturday, Harper made the most pointed reference to the values that drove Canada to wage war against the Nazis and the bloody counter-insurgency fight in Afghanistan.
“Just as we remember the lives of Canadians, French, American, British and others who lie beneath these sands so we think of the courageous men and women of our enduring alliance who serve shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan,” Harper said during a ceremony involving U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and French President Nicholas Sarkozy.
With an almost lyrical speech, Obama addressed veterans from all nations, many of them bent and withered by time, striking an inspirational note, while avoiding direct references to the wars of today.
“You remind us that in the end human destiny is not determined by forces beyond our control. You remind us that our future is not shaped by mere chance and circumstance,” he said.
The future, he declared “has always been up to us.”
Speaking under a sunny sky in Omaha Beach earlier in the day, Harper recalled the heroism and sacrifices of “the greatest generation.”
Harper praised the old soldiers saying they took on “the most dangerous task imaginable.”
Sarkozy singled out Canadians in his address, saying they “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 honour.”
Victory in Normandy was a spectacular achievement but certainly not the only one, Harper 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 left behind.”
Earlier Saturday, Harper laid a wreath at the grave of the unknown soldier at the pastoral Canadian war cemetery at nearby Beny-Sur-Mer, where the only sound was of chirping birds.
He was accompanied by Phil LeBreton, a D-Day veteran of the Queen’s Own Rifles.
As he saluted, LeBreton’s eyes filled with tears.
Scenes of solidarity among nations filled the anniversary weekend, but behind-the-scenes bruised feelings over the exclusion of Queen Elizabeth and other diplomatic tiffs remained.
A French presidential official confirmed Friday that Sarkozy had initially tried to limit the main ceremony to just himself and Obama, but both Canada and Britain insisted on being included.
Harper’s whirlwind visit — just over 24 hours on the ground — was planned at the last minute because Ottawa had been waiting for an official French invitation, government officials said Saturday. The change in schedule forced the Canadians to move the Juno Beach ceremony back by a few hours.