Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid tribute to the Canadian military Thursday for its role in ending Moammar Gadhafi's "brutal and psychotic" dictatorship.

An elaborate ceremony on Parliament Hill also included a special honour for Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard, the Canadian in charge of the NATO-led mission launched in March.

Harper, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Gov. Gen. David Johnston, commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, and Gen. Walt Natynczyk all attended the event, thanked the Canadian Forces and hailed the intervention as a success.

"It is a day to pay tribute to the extraordinary men and women of our Armed Forces who played their part. And yes, it is a day to honour the great Canadian who led them," Harper said.

The prime minister said the mission was undertaken for a noble purpose, to help protect Libyans who were uprising against Gadhafi and asking for freedom.

Text of citation

Meritorious Service Cross (Military Division)

From March to September 2011, Lieutenant-General Bouchard was the commander, Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) Unified Protector. In a complex political environment, he developed a campaign plan that put pressure on the entrenched regime while successfully synchronizing the efforts of multiple nations. Leading an intricate combination of multinational naval and air forces, Lieutenant-General Bouchard brought great credit to Canada with his demonstration of exceptional operational and strategic acumen, which helped to protect the citizens of Libya from harm during this period of civil strife.

"And, why would they do otherwise, having experienced over four decades of dictatorship so brutal and psychotic, that it had literally taken their country out of the mainstream of human existence?" Harper said.

The prime minister said Gadhafi's harsh and violent response to the uprising was "an invitation to genocide" and that is why Canada joined its NATO allies to support the United Nations-backed response.

He said Canada will always defend what is right. "For we believe that in a world where people look for hope and cry out for freedom, those who talk the talk of human rights must from time to time be prepared to likewise walk the walk," said Harper.

A 21-gun salute and a flypast over Parliament Hill kicked off the morning's event before it began in the Senate chamber.

The flypast involved seven CF-18 fighter jets, a Sea King helicopter, an Airbus and a Globemaster aircraft, and was meant to pay tribute to the aviation support provided by the Canadian Forces in the Libyan mission.

Bouchard was given the meritorious service cross, a recognition for a military activity that, according to the Department of National Defence's description, "has been performed in an outstandingly professional manner, according to a rare high standard that brings considerable benefit or great honour to the Canadian Forces."

The medal was pinned to his uniform by Gov. Gen. Johnston, who in his remarks, said the Canadian Forces served with distinction.

"On behalf of all Canadians, I thank you for your service in this mission," he said.

When Bouchard accepted his medal and made his speech, he called those who participated in the mission "true Canadian heroes."

Bouchard wanted Gadhafi captured alive

He said Canadian air crews helped conduct the most precise air campaign in NATO's history and sea crews faced dangerous conditions to help allow for humantarian aid to be delivered to Libya's ports.

"Libya and Libyans are the true victors of this campaign. They have won their war and every day, as we see it, they are winning their peace," he said.

Bouchard said he is hopeful to see an effective judicial system soon in Libya, and expressed disappointment later to reporters that Gadhafi was killed and won't face it.

"The death of Gadhafi was unfortunate in the sense that I would have preferred to see him taken to justice," Bouchard said.

Harper, Natynczyk and MacKay all paid tribute to Bouchard and his role in leading the international effort.

MacKay said Bouchard, who is set to retire in January, "exemplified the best that our country has to offer."

"To Gen. Bouchard, and all of our fine men and women in uniform, I thank you, the Libyan people thank you, Canadians everywhere thank you and thank your families," the defence minister said.

Earlier in the day, MacKay addressed questions about why a ceremony was held to mark the Libyan mission and not the Afghanistan one. The defence said the Afghanistan mission isn't over yet, but that it too will be commemorated.

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"We're looking at ways in which we can appropriately pay respects and honour Afghanistan veterans in addition," he said Thursday.

"This mission came about very quickly ... it has now successfully concluded. Suffice it to say there is more work to be done in Afghanistan with respect to the stabilization of that country and Canadian Forces are still there. That is one major difference. To suggest somehow that the Afghan mission has come to a close and that we would commemorate it in such a way as we are celebrating today is simply inappropriate."

About 900 troops are conducting a training mission in Afghanistan, based in Kabul.

Ceremony called 'showpiece' for government

One critic called Thursday's ceremony a "garish display" at a time when the government is trying to cut costs, and that there is a fine line between celebrating the military and putting on a "political show."

"It goes beyond just recognizing the contributions of members of the Canadian Forces to being a showpiece for the Conservative government," Steven Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, told CBC News. "The government has to be careful here. While the public supports the Armed Forces, they don't want them used as props for Stephen Harper, Peter MacKay and this government."

Canadian troops left for Libya in March with a mission to enforce an arms embargo and no-fly zone imposed over Libya through a United Nations resolution.

About 630 military personnel served in the region at any one time until operations came to an end on Nov. 1, after Gadhafi's capture and death Oct. 20. A number of fighter jets and other aircraft were deployed along with HMCS Charlottetown to patrol the waters off Libya. It was later replaced by HMCS Vancouver. In total, about 2,000 troops served a tour in the region.

Canadian Forces aircraft dropped more than 600 bombs, helped refuel the aircraft of allies and gathered intelligence.

Gadhafi ruled Libya for 42 years until he was ousted by his own people in an uprising that became a civil war.