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'Our hearts ache for them,' PM says

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VERLINGHEM, FRANCE — There was an audible gasp and immediate sense of unease among the audience of veterans and dignitaries when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada's latest deaths in combat. The audience had just sat down for a celebratory Easter dinner to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge when Mr. Harper broke the news in a brief, hastily amended speech.

"Sadly, today has been a difficult day in Afghanistan," he told the hushed crowd. "We have learned that an incident has claimed the lives of six Canadian soldiers and injured a number of others.

"Our hearts ache for them and their families. I know that as we gather here on Easter Sunday, our thoughts and prayers are with them.

"Today's events once more remind us of the sacrifices that our men and women in uniform continue to make" defending "freedom, democracy and human rights," Mr. Harper said.

The Prime Minister had planned to use the speech to evoke parallels between the challenges faced by Canadian soldiers in the First World War and those faced by Canadian troops in Afghanistan. Suddenly, those parallels seemed all too real.

Copies of the speech given to the press just minutes before delivery emphasized that theme but made no mention of the Afghan losses. Then word swept among the journalists that bad news was expected out of Afghanistan.

Mr. Harper's speech was delayed for more than 30 minutes. Some of the waiting journalists observed hushed discussions involving Canada's top military officer, General Rick Hillier.

When Mr. Harper did speak, the news from Afghanistan was confirmed with the addition of the five short sentences. The additions were clearly made in haste -- there was no new text circulated and none of the French translation one would normally expect for such an important announcement.

Other than the addition, Mr. Harper made no changes to the speech, which directly compared the challenges of Afghanistan with those of the First World War, praising a new generation of Canadian soldiers who carry the torch of Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, the Canadian officer who penned the poem In Flanders Fields.

"For these men and women, the terrain of Kandahar province looks as desolate and dangerous as Flanders Field did 90 years ago," Mr. Harper said.

"But those who wear the Maple Leaf on their uniform move forward against tyranny and fear with the same courage and determination that you did in your time and that the heroes of Vimy Ridge did before you."

Whatever the parallels, there is also a comparison to be made in the scale of the two conflicts. In four days of the Vimy campaign, there were 10,000 Canadian casualties and almost 3,600 deaths.

Yesterday's losses in Afghanistan bring total Canadian losses in that country since 2002 to 51 soldiers. One expert here noted the proportions: There were 100,000 Canadians in the Battle of Vimy Ridge and 3,500 Canadians deployed in Afghanistan.

Deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who got word of the losses prior to Mr. Harper's speech, also expressed deep regrets at the deaths.

"Can you imagine a worse Easter Sunday for six Canadian families?" he said in an interview. "Every Canadian's heart goes out to them."

But Mr. Ignatieff warned Mr. Harper to be careful with his use of rhetoric. "You always have to use parallels with caution," he said. "Vimy was a glorious victory. We're in the middle of a very tough campaign in Afghanistan."

Mr. Ignatieff said that the government should be asking some serious questions after yesterday's deadly explosion. "Have we changed tactics and have we done enough to keep our troops safe?" he asked. "It's not a question of second-guessing the military but of asking the questions the government has to ask."

Among the Canadians assembled in the region for today's rededication of the Vimy memorial there was great sadness at the news from Kandahar but support for Mr. Harper's view of the similarities between yesterday's and today's deadly battles.

"When it flashed across the TV, there was a feeling of horror. Why today?" said Geoff Linklater, a retired high-school music teacher from Ottawa who had travelled to Arras, France, to honour his late grandfather, who fought at Vimy.

"I really believe in what they're doing over there," he continued, referring to the Afghan campaign. "This whole event is honouring soldiers who sacrificed for a cause and I believe that this [Afghanistan] is a just cause."

"The loss of any of our soldiers is always tragic and to lose six prior to the memorial of a great episode of Canadian history is something that will always weigh heavily on our minds," said Lieutenant Steven Dieter, information officer for the Princess of Wales' Own Regiment, who is accompanying a group of 81 regimental members and others on a Vimy tour.

Clive Harris, an ex-British serviceman who runs a firm specializing in military history tours in the region, said he would emphasize yesterday's tragic deaths during the group's visit to the Vimy memorial today. "It's relevant that combat isn't just history, it's reality," he said, adding that among British soldiers, "We feel Canadian losses as much as we feel British losses."

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