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Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses war veterans at a dinner in Verlinghem, France, on Sunday, when he also announces that six Canadian soldiers were killed the same day in Afghanistan. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))

Prime Minister Stephen Harper drew a direct line Sunday between Canadian soldiers dying in Afghanistan and the sacrifices of Canadians on Vimy Ridge almost a century ago.

Speaking to a group of veterans on the eve of the 90th anniversary of the historic First World War battle, the prime minister portrayed the work of Canada's military as being on a straight-line continuum from 1917 to 2007.

"Canadians did not go to war then, nor will we ever, to conquer or to enslave," Harper told the dinner gathering that included Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's chief of defence staff.

"But when the cause is just, Canada will always be there to defend our values and our fellow human beings."

Harper went on to say Canadian soldiers "still live in a dangerous world and, as prime minister, my thoughts these days are never far from Afghanistan."

The speech had been prepared in advance, but at this point a sombre and subdued Harper deviated from the text due to events that had unfolded only hours earlier.

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

There was a loud, collective intake of breath before Harper continued.

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

There could be no more poignant reminder as thousands of Canadians mustered for Monday's re-dedication of the refurbished Vimy Memorial on the site of this country's most celebrated battle of the Great War.

A parade earlier Sunday afternoon in the city of Arras, a few short kilometres from the pock-marked ridge, had lacked the emotional wallop associated with the memorial itself and the pristine military cemeteries dotting the nearby countryside.

While thousands turned out on a brilliant spring Sunday, the crowds fell far short of the advertised 35,000 that organizers had anticipated, and the locals' response to the festivities was respectful and muted.

By tradition, the Freedom of the City parade is regarded as the most prized honour that a community can give to a military unit.

The Canadian Forces paraded on the cobblestone square in front of city hall, and knocked at a symbolic gate to the city set in front of a viewing stand of dignitaries. The mayor of Arras reviewed the Canadian troops, and then granted them permission to enter.

Francoise Guerra, watching the parade with her teenage daughter, said the event captured the Canada-France friendship that persists from the 1914-1918 conflict, despite the long intervening years.

"I think the first war is very present in the memories of everybody because of the cemeteries, because of the presence of the soldiers who are dead here," she said. "I think it's still very real."

It became more real before the afternoon was finished.

PM compares mission to Flanders Fields

Harper has frequently linked the Afghan mission, which is not universally endorsed by the Canadian public, with the celebrated Canadian contributions in two world wars.

On Sunday, even before word came of the latest Afghan casualties, Harper planned to make the link even more explicit.

His prepared speech alluded to Col. John McCrae's iconic poem, In Flanders Fields, and said Canadian soldiers continue to pick up the torch.

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

But the tragedy that overtook his words does not change the bloody calculus of the first great war of attrition in the age of modern weapons.

While Afghanistan has claimed 51 Canadian soldiers and one civilian to date, some 66,000 Canadians died in the "war to end all wars," including almost 3,600 in the four-day assault on Vimy Ridge that began at dawn on April 9, 1917.

Another 7,000 Canadians soldiers were wounded scaling the heavily fortified ridge.

Latest deaths cast pall on ceremonies

"Vimy had been considered too tough to take," Steve Harris, a military historian with National Defence, said Sunday during a daybreak tour of the newly refurbished Vimy memorial.

"In fact, the proof of that was there was no cavalry here to exploit a victory. The cavalry had been sent elsewhere."

"No one expected this to be taken in the way it was taken," said Harris. "The fact it was, was this first glimmer of hope on the allied side. You can actually say: 'There's a victory!' There's no qualified adjective required. It's a victory."

Monday's ceremonies were to be an unqualified feel-good moment for Canada and its military, until events in Afghanistan cast a pall.

The Queen will officially re-dedicate the 71-year-old monument, finished in 1936 after 11 years of labour and recently refurbished, before a crowd that will include up to 5,000 Canadian school children.