Praise and condolences are pouring in from world leaders following the death of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon on Saturday, but critics have also spoken out against the polarizing politician's divisive policies.

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, described Sharon as "one of the architects of modern-day Israel" and one of its "staunchest defenders" in a statement of condolence.

"A renowned military leader, Mr. Sharon pursued the security of Israel with unyielding determination that was recognized by friends and foes alike."

Sharon played a central role in the Israeli government for several years, changing the political landscape through his leadership and vision, Harper added.

He also said that Canada values its long-standing relationship with Israel, "which is based on shared values, common interests and strong political, economic, cultural and social ties."

Sharon died Saturday at the age of 85. He spent eight years in a coma after he had a stroke at the height of his power in 2006. His death followed a week of sharp decline in his health as his vital organs began shutting down. 

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander will represent Canada at a memorial for Sharon, the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

Sharon 'a very tough soldier'

In an interview with CBC on Saturday morning, former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin fondly recalled Sharon's sense of humour and said he was "very impressed" with the Sharon he met privately on several occasions.

"It was a very different Ariel Sharon that I met than what the public saw," Martin said. "He had been a soldier and a very tough soldier. When we sat down to discuss the Middle East, I found that his views were quite a bit broader than I had been led to believe.

"If the Ariel Sharon I talked to was able to carry out all the things he believed, I think there could have been progress made."

Martin went on to say that history will eventually judge Sharon's controversial actions throughout his military and political careers, in terms of "what needed to be done."

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who turned 80 on Saturday, remembered the man he met once as "a man of determination" and "very colourful."

Sharon was "completely committed to improve the life of his country," Chretien told CBC's Christine Birak in a phone interview.

When asked about whether Sharon's vision for Israel is still relevant today, Chrétien said he did not want to comment on current politics.

"When we are in one period of time, we do what we think is right. And sometimes the consensus changes and years later ... the facts are not the same."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar expressed condolences on behalf of the New Democrats.

"We join those marking the passage of Mr. Sharon, a significant figure in world history and an influential leader who dedicated his life to serving his country," Dewar said in a statement.

World leaders react

Tributes are also pouring in from U.S. leaders.

U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, issued a statement, calling Sharon "a leader who
dedicated his life to the state of Israel."

"We join with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his country," Obama said in a statement. 

Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the differences between the U.S. and Israel during Sharon's years in politics but voiced his admiration for the man.

'Whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions ... you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish state.'- John Kerry, U.S. secretary of state

"I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became prime minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process," Kerry said in a statement.

"But whether you agreed or disagreed with his positions ... you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish state."

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "saddened" by Sharon's death, his spokesperson said.

"Ariel Sharon was a hero to his people, first as a soldier and then a statesman," the UN statement said.

Sharon will be remembered for carrying through "with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip," the spokesperson added.

"His successor faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people."

Critics celebrate Sharon's death

The response in much of the Arab world, however, was different, as people remembered him as a general with a political agenda and a politician with a strong militaristic bent, CBC's Sasa Petricic reported.

'He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.'- Tawfik Tirawi, former Palestinian intelligence chief

As a general in the Israeli army, Sharon always seemed to want to "make a political point," Petricic said from Lebanon.

"He was also a very ... militaristic prime minister, one who realized the strengths of the army and what it could be used for and didn't hesitate to use it."

Palestinians are much less ambivalent about Sharon's death, Petricic said, as they blame Sharon for generations of repression and accuse him of being largely responsible for the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.

"In Lebanon today, there were all kinds of celebrations that he's dead. Also in Gaza, where he was not loved at all," Petricic said.

Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister, said, "He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map.... He wanted to kill us, but at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive."

"After eight years, he is going in the same direction as other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood," said Khalil al-Haya, a leader in the Islamic militant group Hamas.

With files from The Associated Press