06/01/2012 02:19 EDT | Updated 08/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper derides Cold War 'moral equivalency' on Armed Forces Day

NORTH BAY, Ont. - Prime Minister Stephen Harper marked Canadian Armed Forces Day by visiting the city in northern Ontario known for its underground NORAD base, praising the work of the military and deriding "moral equivalency" of the Cold War.

The military monitored the skies 24 hours a day for more than 40 years in North Bay, Ont., from underground NORAD operations, a facility cut through the Canadian Shield and built to withstand a nuclear blast.

Speaking at an event in North Bay today, Harper says NORAD's operations in the city are now above ground, but are just as crucial.

He says the skies remain uncertain in the post-9/11 world, and says it's important to remember the first duty of a national government is to protect its people and its territory from external threats.

A sea of school children sitting on the grass in the pouring rain at the event did not prove to be the most attentive audience for the prime minister, and his speech could barely be heard over their chatter.

Harper praised the men and women of 22 Wing in North Bay and those who came before them, who he says kept constant vigil over the skies "while the rest of us slept restfully at night and went about our business during the day."

"For members of 22 Wing and their predecessors, monitoring sky and space for Soviet threats there was no time for the chatter about some moral equivalency between the Soviet Union and the West that became so fashionable in some quarters in the 70s and 80s," Harper said.

"Just as in our time in Libya, in Afghanistan and in combat in terrorism during the Cold War, let me emphasize this: Canada chose sides...Our men and women in uniform chose the side of freedom, the side of democracy, the side of justice. They chose the right side."