VICTORIA — British Columbia has the country’s thanks and admiration for hosting the most ambitious sporting event in Canadian history, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a historic address to the B.C. legislature Thursday.

Harper drew upon the images of B.C.’s distant past — as far back as when it first joined Canada in 1871 — to say the province’s enormous strides forward will be reflected by history when British Columbians look back on the success of the 2010 Winter Olympic games.

“This truly is British Columbia’s golden moment,” said Harper. “And it is also Canada’s time to shine.”

He added, “Events like these have a significance beyond themselves. They serve as historic markers of where a community is going and of how its people see themselves.”

Harper is the first sitting Canadian prime minister to make an address to B.C.’s legislative assembly. In fact, no prime minister has addressed a provincial legislature anywhere in Canada since 1990 when Brian Mulroney addressed the legislature of Newfoundland and Labrador in attempt to save the doomed Meech Lake accord.

He used the opportunity to call on Canadians to shed their reputation for “quiet and humble patriotism” during the Olympics, and said “we will ask the world to forgive us, this uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism, of our pride, to be part of a country that is strong, confident and tall among the nations.

“Patriotism, as Canadians, should not make us feel the least bit shy or embarrassed,” he said.

“I know that thoughts of grandeur and boisterous displays of nationalism we tend to associate with others. And, over the centuries, things have been done around the world in the name of national pride or love of country that would have been better left undone.

“Yet we should never cast aside our pride in a country so wonderful, in a land we are so fortunate to call home, merely because the notion has sometimes been abused.”

He added, “Canada, our Canada, is truly worthy of our pride and our patriotism.”

Harper’s address was filled with glowing praise for Canada’s Olympic athletes, its contribution toward peace in Afghanistan and its recent humanitarian efforts in Haiti.

But it did not address frequent criticism about the cost of the Olympics or his controversial decision to prorogue parliament in Ottawa until the Olympics are over.

Harper’s speech to a provincial legislature allowed his political opponents to remind Canadians that it was a speech he could not give to his own legislature in Ottawa because Harper himself prorogued Parliament in late December until March 3.

“Not only can we not get Mr. Harper inside our legislature these days, but he’s actually gone to the extreme of shutting down Parliament altogether,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said in a statement Wednesday, asking his provincial counterparts to use their position in their legislature to put some questions to Harper about his plans for the country.

“I know this is a long shot,” Ignatieff said. “Mr. Harper absolutely refuses to answer questions that make him uncomfortable, especially when they come from the media or from his fellow elected officials.”

Groups of protesters raised those points during sporadic appearances outside the legislature in advance of the speech.

Several groups also used the prime minister’s visit as an opportunity to raise issues. In an emotional plea to Harper from the legislature steps, Penelakut First Nation Chief Lisa Shaver asked for a public inquiry into murdered and missing First Nations women across Canada. More than 3,000 women have gone missing since the 1970s but only 520 are officially recognized and most cases have not been properly investigated, said Shaver, speaking on behalf of the B.C. All Chiefs Task Force.

Cliff Atleo, Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president, said the Harper government needs to address not only the missing women, but also other problems faced by aboriginal families such as poverty and high rates of violence.

“We are hurting because of indifference by every level of government,” Atleo said. “We know why these things are not investigated. There’s a distinct racist attitude to our people.”

Back inside the legislature, Harper spoke of B.C.’s “unmatched beauty” and said the Olympics would boost B.C.’s reputation and put the province on the map the same way as Expo 86.

“While British Columbia will have on display during these games everything of which you are so proud, the thing most visible, once our national teams and athletes appear on the stage, will be B.C.’s greatest attribute and its great asset that is, that British Columbia, it is part of Canada. It is all of Canada that will be cheering our athletes on.”

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