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Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his congratulations Tuesday to the Canadian navy on 100 years of "a mighty tradition of service and heroism, one that is second to none in the world among navies that are often far older and in some cases far larger."

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden during a ceremony Tuesday on Parliament Hill that commemorated the centennial of the Canadian navy. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

May 4 marks a century since royal assent was granted for the establishment of Canada's Department of Naval Service.

"Over the past 100 years of navy service, more than 600 warships have left our ports with the proud prefix HMCS designating Canadian ships," Harper said at a ceremony in Ottawa.

"These ships served during two world wars, during the Korean War, during many peacekeeping missions particularly in the Persian Gulf during the Afghan mission, in the Arctic and the Caribbean, and in a nutshell, every time it has been called upon to meet a need."

Between 1939 and 1945, the navy lost more than 2,000 men and 24 ships in the fight for freedom, emerging from the Second World War with the third-largest global fleet, he added.

Quoting Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, commander of the Maritime Command, Harper said: "The world's oceans no longer serve to shield Canada from far distant events. Rather they connect us through a vast and intricate web of relationships — political, economic, financial and social — that has made us neighbours with all the world's peoples."

To mark the day In Halifax, about 1,000 sailors marched from the naval dockyard to city hall. Rear Admiral Paul Maddison will later swear in 19 recruits aboard HMCS Toronto.

In Victoria Tuesday morning, 2,750 members from the Maritime Forces Pacific base in nearby Esquimalt marched through the city.

Then at noon, B.C. Lt.-Gov. Steven Point was expected to unveil a new homecoming statue on Wharf Street to mark the centennial. A civic appreciation barbecue was organized for Market Square.

'Great sacrifice'

Harper noted the "great sacrifice … up to and including of course the ultimate sacrifice" made by sailors and their families, including the death of Petty Officer Craig Blake, a navy explosives expert killed Monday in Afghanistan by a bomb.

"It's a bittersweet day," Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada's top military commander, said in Halifax.

"It's a day of joy and thanks for the great service of all these sailors but also recognizing the sacrifices of the century and the sacrifice yesterday of Petty Officer Blake on the other side of the world."

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Friends and family welcome the crew of HMCS Fredericton home to Halifax. ((CBC))

HMCS Fredericton returned to Halifax on Tuesday after six months on a mission to combat piracy and terrorism in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden off the Horn of Africa.

Steve Waddell, the ship's commander, said the homecoming was tempered by the news of Blake's death. "It hits really hard here in the community," said Waddell, who delivered the bad news to his crew earlier Tuesday.

"I said go forward and serve with honour for his sacrifice and indeed the sacrifices of everybody before," he said.

Blake was the first sailor killed in action since October 2004, when Lt. Chris Saunders died after an electrical fire aboard a submarine.

The crew members of the warship were met with hugs and kisses. One sailor proposed to his girlfriend as family and friends cheered.

The navy also held ceremonies on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic and on Monday, Canada Post unveiled two commemorative stamps celebrating the centenary.

The Queen will be in Halifax in June as part of continuing ceremonies.