Canada has accepted the Japanese government's apology for the treatment of prisoners held during the Second World War for five years after the Battle of Hong Kong.

An official statement of regret was delivered in Tokyo on Thursday by Toshiyuki Kato, the Japanese parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney and a delegation from the Canadian Veterans of the Battle of Hong Kong travelled to Japan for the apology and a ceremony on Thursday.

"This important gesture is a crucial step in ongoing reconciliation and a significant milestone in the lives of all prisoners of war," Blaney said in a release. "It acknowledges their suffering while honouring their sacrifices and courage."

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Four veterans of the defence of Hong Kong visit Japan to receive that country's official apology Thursday. They are, from left, Gerry Gerrard, Ken Pifher, Derrill Henderson of the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association, and Veteran George Peterson (seated). With them is Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney (second from left). (Submitted)

More than 50 per cent of the Canadians sent to defend Hong Kong, then a British colony, against the Japanese invasion during the Second World War died or were wounded, either during the 17½-day battle or during the years of imprisonment, hard labour and deprivation that followed. Many soldiers who became prisoners of war were subjected to torture and starvation. 

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird responded Thursday in Ottawa to the apology.

"The terrible pain and heavy burden of the Second World War have given way to a mutually beneficial, respectful relationship between Canada and Japan as mature democracies — a legacy of all who served in the Pacific campaigns," Baird said in a statement.

"Today's apology will help in healing as our two great countries move forward."

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Canadian soldiers are inspected at Hong Kong, soon after their arrival, in November 1941. (Archives Canada)

But some veterans say the apology has come far too late.

George MacDonnell, who was just 19 years old when he was sent to Hong Kong, says it means very little to the Canadian soldiers who served during the battle.

"Really, this apology means almost nothing to us. There may only be 30 of us left," he told host Mark Kelley on the CBC's Connect with Mark Kelley.  "All the rest died on the battlefield, they died of starvation in Japanese camps, or they died, they died since that happened. The Japanese have been denying what happened in Southeast Asia for 70 years now."

MacDonnell said he hoped this apology would serve as a lesson for the new generation of Japanese.

"It has been far more damaging for them. You can't have a culture that grows and is healthy, with incoming generations if you block out from them four and five years, critical years of their history, and tell a pack of lies about it.

"And so, I've always hoped that they would begin to face up to what happened."

Hormidas Fredette was just 23 years old when he was taken prisoner in Hong Kong. Now in his nineties, he says the memories of those terrible days in captivity still haunt him in nightmares.

He says the people who inflicted so much suffering on him and his fellow prisoners are the ones who should have offered an apology. Instead, Fredette says, they left it for another generation of Japanese far removed from the war.

"I don't accept the apology," he told CBC News. 

But MacDonnell said he would accept Japan's gesture.

"I have no hatred for them at all. The Japanese people, the civilians that supervised me when I was doing slave labour, they were just as humane as they possibly could be, under the circumstances.

"The Japanese military was just the opposite. Completely out of control. The most savage behaviour you can imagine. Their senior officers knew about it and so did the emperor of Japan. But they let their soldiers run amok in the captured territories."

The allies' battle to defend Hong Kong ended on Christmas Day in 1941, and the survivors were imprisoned either until their death or the end of the war. They were imprisoned in Hong Kong until early 1943, and then in Japan until liberation in September 1945.

Of the 1,975 Canadians who went to Hong Kong, more than 1,050 were either killed or wounded, says Canadians in Hong Kong, a booklet published by Veterans Affairs Canada.

The delegation to Tokyo this week also visited the graves of Canadian soldiers at the British Commonwealth Cemetery at Yokohama.

Corrections

  • Of the 1,975 Canadians sent to Hong Kong, more than 1,050 died or were wounded. A previous version of this story said that 50 per cent of the Canadians sent to Hong Kong died.
    Dec 09, 2011 4:47 PM ET