Protesters rally as soldiers march in Quebec City

As a parade of Canadian soldiers set to deploy to Afghanistan marched through the streets of Quebec City on Friday evening, anti-war activists rallied nearby.

As a parade of Canadian soldiers set to deploy to Afghanistan marched through the streets of Quebec City on Friday evening, anti-waractivists rallied nearby, carrying drums, banners and even mock coffins.

The protesters, led by the War on War Coalition, said they are against Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.

They chose to stage their event the same day as 2,500 soldiers from Quebec City's CFB Valcartier made a farewell march before beginning their deployment July 15 in the volatile Afghan region of Kandahar.

"We're not targeting the soldiers, we respect them as people," protest organizer Joseph Bergeron said. "But we are in total opposition with the Afghanistan mission and we want to show we represent the great part of the population that is opposed."

In Quebec, opposition is especially high, with a recent poll suggesting 70 per cent of people in the province don't agree with the mission.

On Wednesday, some members of the Parti Québécois refused to stand in honour of Quebec soldiers who were visiting the province's national assembly. Earlier this month, protesters sent letters to Valcartier soldiers, urging them to refuse their deployment.

With anti-war sentiment high, organizers of the military march worried that they might have to cancel theirparade through Old Quebec.

"I know many in the community were a bit worried about [a cancellation], but for the military's part, we're proud of what we're doing," Maj. Bruno Vieille told CBC News before the parade, in which soldiers marched in full uniform.

Prior to the march, the soldiers were addressed by Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

"You are the acting arm of Quebec pacifism," Charest said. "You are liberators."

Afghan Ambassador Omar Samad also talked to the troops, stressing that the presence of the 26-nation NATOmission in his countryis necessary to help it rebuild.

"I ask all Canadians, including those who may have doubts about this mission, to take a look at the alternative," he said. "For millions of women and children and men, there is no alternative."

The Quebec regiment from CFB Valcartier, known as "thefighting Vandoos" and "Le troupe de Quebec,"will make up the bulk of Canada's military presence in Kandahar by late summer.

Scheffer explains why mission important

The chief of the NATO alliance in Afghanistan, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer,met with the troops Friday afternoon. Earlier, he met with reporters.

"I believe that I can explain to Quebecers why it is important to be in Afghanistan and why it is important that Canada participates as it is doing now," he said.

"It is not a combat mission; it is a reconstruction mission, but to make[reconstruction] possible, we have to fight. It is as simple as that. NATO has to fight."

De Hoop Scheffer spoke with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa on Thursday, and is appealing to the Canadian government to extend Canada's mission mandate beyond the February 2009 deadline when troops are scheduled to withdraw.

SixtyCanadian soldiers have been killed on duty since the mission began in 2002.

With files from the Canadian Press