Harper marked Remembrance Day at the Sai Wan Bay military cemetery where 283 Canadian soldiers are buried on a grassy, tree-fringed slope overlooking the skyscrapers of bustling Hong Kong.
"It lies within us to do this: We can walk worthy of the lives that they laid down for us," Harper said to a group of about 300 officials and onlookers.
"They have given their lives to make possible the freedom that we enjoy, the democracy by which we govern ourselves, and the justice under which we live."
Harper, his wife Laureen and a long list of parliamentarians and local dignitaries placed wreaths at the base of the Sai Wan memorial. A local children's choir sang the Canadian and Chinese national anthems.
The battle of Hong Kong was one of the most catastrophic episodes in Canadian military history. The 1,975 Canadian troops from the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada, who had received little combat training, were vastly outnumbered by the tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers that descended on the city in the hours after the attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
They managed to hold off the Japanese for nearly three weeks, with the vast majority of the brigade surrendering on Christmas Day. Nearly 300 were killed, and the rest sent to prisoner of war camps where they were subjected to torture, starvation and forced labour at the hands of their captors. Another 267 died before liberation in 1945, and those who returned home bore the physical and psychological scars for the rest of their lives.
Ken Pifher of Grimsby, Ont. travelled to Hong Kong for Sunday's ceremony. The 91-year-old walked next to Harper past the rows upon rows of gravestones to the main memorial at a plateau on the hill. He had given Harper a letter of encouragement that former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had sent POWs during the war.
Pifher, who served with the Royal Rifles of Canada as a private, described how the men in the camps got through all those years.
"It took a little while, but we lived on rumours. And there was a lot of them. A rumour would come along and then it was gone," Pifher said.
"But we knew things were going well because of the planes going over and also for a while there was a radio in camp, until they found it and it was confiscated. The people who they found it with were beaten. That was normal and their way of treating POWs. They weren't very nice people."
Nathan Greenfield, author of the 2010 book about the battle of Hong Kong, "The Damned," called episode an absolute disaster.
"By a military definition, it was a 100 per cent casualty rate because every single soldier was either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Dieppe was a 40 per cent casualty rate...it's the definition of disaster."
Some of the criticisms of the Harper government's approach towards veterans — particularly the newer ones — followed the prime minister all the way to Hong Kong.
Retired peacekeeper Leonard Kerr, formerly of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, said he's unhappy with the fact the government replaced a pension system for injured veterans with a lump sum payment for the younger generation.
"I love my regiment and I love my country, but I'm not wearing anything that was given to me by the government as a decoration as a protest for the treatment of our veterans," said Kerr, who now lives in Hong Kong. He served in Cyprus,
"I just think that now they've used us in Afghanistan, I don't really think the government cares that much about us anymore. I really just don't."
Most recently, the Conservatives have faced questions about federal support for the Last Post Fund, an agency that helps pay for the funerals of impoverished veterans. Since 2006, the fund has had to reject two-thirds of all applications for help because of narrow guidelines that restrict money to veterans of the two world wars and the Korean war.
The Last Post Fund itself, veterans groups and funeral directors have lobbied the government to raise the amount of money its puts towards funerals, which has been fixed at $3,600 since 2000. They also want the eligibility requirements broadened.
But when asked specifically about the fund by reporters travelling with him on Saturday, Harper did not acknowledge those concerns. Instead, he said his government was doing a lot for veterans, and that all programs are constantly being assessed. The Last Post Fund was last reviewed two years ago.
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