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As the survivors fade into history, the world marks a D-Day anniversary like no other

On so many different levels, the gathering of western leaders in Normandy today is steeped in symbolism as the nations whose troops stormed the beaches eight decades ago reflect on wars past and present.

The ceremonies unfolding throughout today, however, also mark what might be the world’s last opportunity to celebrate the handful of surviving soldiers, sailors and aircrew who charged forth on June 6, 1944 into the teeth of the Nazi guns — and to say goodbye.

Time grows short for the veterans of D-Day, most of whom are at least close to a century old. That fact was underscored painfully by the passing of navy veteran Bill Cameron, who had been slated to take part in the official Veterans Affairs Canada delegation.

He died Friday, the day before he was set to board a plane in Vancouver, the Canadian Press reported. Cameron was 100 years old.

Parachutists float to the ground as Trudeau arrives ahead of the Government of Canada ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, on Thursday. (Jordan Pettitt/Getty Images)

Thirteen Canadian veterans of the Second World War were in attendance for Thursday’s anniversary ceremonies at Juno Beach.

Veterans Affairs Minister Ginette Petitpas-Taylor said this year’s commemoration will likely be the last attended by veterans of the European campaign, but the federal government will continue to mark the occasion.

“It’s so important for us as Canadians to continue with these very important events,” she said Wednesday.

The ceremonies on Thursday included the Canadian commemoration event at Juno Beach and an international ceremony at Omaha Beach.

‘Canadians came together as one’: PM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute to the sacrifices made by Allied forces, including 14,000 Canadians who landed at Juno Beach, after a performance by guitarist Mitchell Makoons and fiddler Morgan Grace, both Métis from Manitoba.

“On the battlefield, francophones, anglophones, Indigenous people and new Canadians came together as one. Brave Canadians like you sacrificed everything for our freedom,” said Trudeau. “There are no words to describe the immensity of the debt we owe you.”

WATCH: Trudeau on the ‘immensity of the debt’ owed to D-Day veterans  

Canada will keep commemorating D-Day for generations to come, PM says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking from the beaches of Normandy on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, urged Canadians to keep sharing the stories of those who served — and to never forget the principles they fought for, saying democracy is still under threat today.

Three-hundred and fifty-nine Canadians were killed on D-Day.

“We all have a responsibility to continue to share those stories so that future generations don’t forget the heroism and the courage it took to defend our freedoms, and to remember the dangers and the horrors of war,” said Trudeau.

The prime minister mentioned several of the surviving D-Day veterans by name and took note of Cameron’s death last week.

Prince William also honoured the Canadians who stood “shoulder to shoulder” with British troops to “ensure fascism was conquered.”

“Standing here today, in peaceful silence, it is almost impossible to grasp the courage it would have taken to run into the fury of battle that very day,” he said.

Spectators attend a multinational parachute drop as some 400 Canadian, British, Belgian and U.S. paratroopers jump to commemorate the contribution of airborne forces on D-Day. The drop was part of events marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day in Sannerville, Normandy, France on Wednesday, June 5, 2024.
Spectators attend a multinational parachute drop as some 400 Canadian, British, Belgian and U.S. paratroopers jump to commemorate the contribution of airborne forces on D-Day. The drop was part of events marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day in Sannerville, Normandy, France on Wednesday, June 5, 2024. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

D-Day lessons ever-present,Trudeau, Biden say

The Allied invasion of France on D-Day marked the beginning of the end of Nazi tyranny. The battle holds an important place in the collective imagination of western democracies.

This 80th anniversary comes at another pivotal moment in history, as a full-scale war rages in eastern Europe.

Russia has not been invited to the event. Of all the allies that fought Hitler during the Second World War, Russia suffered the most from German aggression — an estimated 20 million dead.

WATCH l With eye to Ukraine, Biden praises D-Day heroism:

Struggle between dictatorship and democracy is ‘unending,’ Biden says at D-Day event

U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking at a D-Day commemorative event in France, said the ‘dark forces that these heroes fought against 80 years ago’ never fade, pointing to Ukraine’s ongoing fight against a Russian invasion.

Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, however, has changed the calculus and the lukewarm relations that existed between the West and Russia following the end of the Cold War have evaporated.

While he didn’t mention Russian President Vladimir Putin by name, Trudeau said this year’s D-Day event has particular salience due to “aggressors who want to redraw borders.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined U.S. President Joe Biden at a U.S.-led ceremony.

Biden said in his speech that it’s important to defend Ukraine in light of the events decades ago.

“To surrender to bullies, to bow down to dictators, is simply unthinkable,” he said. “If we were to do that, it means we’d be forgetting what happened here on these hallowed beaches.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing allies to do more to stop the Russian advance, which has swallowed vast swaths of Ukraine’s east and south.

Zelenskky’s presence added another layer of symbolism. Ukraine’s struggle — and Zelenskyy personally — have been cast in the same defiant light as Britain and its wartime leader Winston Churchill.

But it was at the last major gathering of allied leaders in Normandy, as western nations struggled to address Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, that countries agreed to the Normandy contact group, a collection of European states that tried to mediate a settlement between Russia and Ukraine when the conflict was confined to the eastern Donbas region. 

King Charles III, who continues to be treated for cancer, travelled to France for ceremonies to honour the 22,442 British troops who died in the Battle of Normandy.

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