A 21-gun salute echoed over Parliament Hill today as a ceremony to pay respects to the veterans and the dead of the long Afghanistan war got underway.

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, senior politicians, top military brass and thousands of onlookers are on hand on a damp day under a slate-grey sky.

The families of many of the 158 soldiers killed over the 12-year mission carried photos of their lost sons, daughters, brothers and sisters as the crowd bowed their heads for two minutes of silence.

A relay of wounded Afghan veterans travelled to Ottawa carrying a baton which held the last Canadian flag flown in Afghanistan.

The baton was handed to Harper, who then handed it over to Johnston, the formal commander-in-chief of the Forces.

A fly-past of aircraft to mark the occasion ignored the flashy CF-18 fighter jets usually seen on such occasions in favour of the helicopters and transports which were the mundane workhorses of the Afghan mission.

Tears for lost loved ones

Earlier in the day, there were tears, cream-coloured roses and photos of lost loved ones on display Friday as the families of soldiers killed during 12 years of war in Afghanistan gathered for a closed-door breakfast with Harper.

The morning event served as a solemn kickoff for a day-long commemoration of the sacrifices Canada made during the brutal guerilla war, which also claimed the lives of one diplomat, one journalist and two civilian contractors.

At the breakfast event, Harper did not deliver a speech to the families, but instead chatted with them privately and posed for pictures.

Many families brought photos of their soldiers and were eager to share them with the politicians and business leaders on hand, their exchanges occasionally ending in tears, according to several who attended.

Each of the families were given cream-coloured roses to pin on their lapels.

"It was all very tasteful," said Anne Snyder, whose son Capt. Jon Snyder died in Kandahar in 2008.

Battle honours

The breakfast also turned into an opportunity for some to rekindle family ties after losing touch with other relatives since their losses. Some of the families are part of a support group that quietly offers a shoulder to lean on whenever there is a casualty, including relatives of soldiers who've recently committed suicide.

It's a tight circle and families who have sometimes only communicated by phone and email had the chance to hug and see each other.

"I got to see a lot of people," said Snyder. "It was a good feeling."

After the breakfast but before a memorial service got underway, families gathered around a memorial to Afghanistan on the Senate floor, some kneeling to find the names of fallen family members.

The Harper government is rolling out the red carpet for Canadian military members and their families today by presenting battle honours to the army and air force units that fought in Afghanistan and navy ships that deployed for the war on terror.

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The names of fallen soldiers are engraved on a memorial, seen in the Senate chamber before the National Day of Honour ceremony in Ottawa on Friday May 9, 2014. The ceremony commemorated the soldiers who fought during Canada's 12-year war in Afghanistan. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Harper announced Friday that 63 army regiments, including special forces and the navy's fleet diving unit, and four squadrons of the air force will be bestowed an Afghanistan Theatre Honour and 15 warships will receive the Arabian Sea honour.

Battle honours are a public recognition that carry historical weight for soldiers, aircrew and sailors and help forge the identity of the units in which they serve.

Theatre honours are give out for participation in overall campaigns and are different from the recognition given individual units for specific battles, such as D-Day in the Second World War and Vimy Ridge during the First World War.

Controversy over last flag

The ceremony has been dogged by complaints about secretive and disorganized planning, as well as controversy over who would receive the last Canadian flag to fly at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in Kabul.

Defence Minister Rob Nicholson told CBC News on Friday morning that Gov. Gen. David Johnston would accept the flag.

The announcement followed days of controversy over whether Harper would get it. News releases from the Prime Minister's Office had said Harper would receive the flag during the day of honour parade and accept it on behalf of all Canadians.

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A Canadian Forces CH-147 Chinook helicopter prepares to land on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday in preparation for Canada's National Day of Honour on Friday. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Critics, including the Royal Canadian Legion, had said the Governor General, as commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, should accept it.

On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino announced plans to etch the dates of the 12-year guerrilla war into the National War Memorial.

As well, a cenotaph that once stood behind the Canadian headquarters in Kandahar will be reassembled and given a permanent home in Ottawa.

A portion of that memorial is on display in Parliament and will tour the country, arriving back in Ottawa in time for Remembrance Day.

Event backed by corporate sponsors

The closed-door breakfast was organized by the True Patriot Love Foundation, but paid for by corporate sponsors, some of which have forked over as much as $3,500 for four tickets.

Other companies, such as Air Canada, have contributed as much as $200,000 towards the event — something that has made opposition politicians and even some family members uneasy.

But Bronwen Evans, the executive director of the foundation, described it as a way for the business community to show its appreciation.

"The mandate of the True Patriot Love Foundation is to build bridges between our military and civilian worlds, and if corporate Canada was not included in the Day of Honour we would be missing an important and large sector of Canadian society," Evans said in an email.

"We believe that it's essential that our military, veterans and their families feel the support of all sectors — the public and not-for-profit sectors will be there, and the corporate sector should be there too."

If there is a surplus from the breakfast event, the foundation will put the money towards defraying the cost of hosting the families in Ottawa, she added.

Historian Jack Granatstein says there's been a lot of attention on the corporate involvement, but it's not much different than business involvement and sponsorship of war bond drives during the Second World War.

Mobile users can re-read the live blog here.

With files from CBC News