01/11/2014 10:04 EST | Updated 03/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Ariel Sharon staunch defender of Israel, Stephen Harper says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is offering his condolences after learning that former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has died at age 85 after being in a coma since 2006.

“We join today with those mourning the loss of Ariel Sharon, one of the architects of modern day Israel and one of the nation’s staunchest defenders," Harper said in a statement.

“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 on Saturday. He spent eight years in a coma after he had a stroke at the height of his power.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander will represent Canada at Sharon's memorial, 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 with privately on several occasions.

"It was a very different Ariel Sharon that I met than what the public saw. 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," Martin said.

"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."

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar issued a statement of condolence 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.

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 showed his admiration.

"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 is "saddened" by Sharon's death, according to his spokesperson.

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

Sharon's bold style and hard-driving tactics are both admired and despised.

"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," said Tawfik Tirawi, who served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister.

"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.