Gen. Rick Hillier talks to The Canadian Press during an interview in Ottawa, Dec. 15, 2006. (Tom Hanson, Canadian Press)
Gen. Rick Hillier
Candour and combat
Departing general leaves a deep legacy in Afghanistan and Canada
Last Updated April 15, 2008
Since becoming Canada's top soldier in February 2005, Gen. Rick Hillier has been fighting two battles, each with his trademark passion and urgency.
The first has been on the ground in Afghanistan, as Canada's traditional peacekeeping role has segued dramatically into a heavy combat mission in the scorching hills of Kandahar.
About 600 troops were serving in the relative safety of the capital, Kabul, with NATO's International Security Assistance Force when Hillier became chief of defence staff. Within three months, Canada was sending just over 1,200 troops to the unsettled province of Kandahar and by April 2008, when Hillier announced he would step down, Canada had 2,500 troops committed to Afghanistan. By then, the mission had been extended twice.
Away from the battlefield, Hillier has waged another all-out campaign, this one for the hearts and minds of Canadians. In his folksy, Newfoundland manner, Hillier rarely pulled punches in his support of the military and the mission.
It has added to his reputation as a 'soldier's soldier', a military leader who put the welfare of his troops above all else.
That tough-guy image and candour struck some as refreshing, but may have rankled his political masters in Ottawa. There were reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't like Hillier's outspoken style, but the colourful general refused to be muzzled. Historians have also suggested that it was Hillier's aggressiveness that cowed former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin into expanding the mission to Kandahar in the first place.
But his straight talk paid off, at least as far as the Canadian military is concerned. Hillier leaves behind a reinvigorated military, which had suffered from years of neglect by Ottawa. Canada's military is receiving big-ticket hardware, from transport planes to armoured trucks and unmanned drones.
For Hillier, these were investments well worth making but only so far as they served the men and women in uniform.
"No nation can send a more precious resource to help a people in need than the young men and women who wear their nation's uniform," he told the CBC's Peter Mansbridge in 2004.
'I just wanted to be a soldier'
Hillier made those comments just days after being appointed commander of the NATO-led multinational Afghanistan mission in 2004. At the time, he was the chief of Canada's land staff.
That appointment was the latest progression in a military career that had spanned three decades. Born in Newfoundland, he joined the army as soon as he graduated from Memorial University.
Hillier, in his own words
Hillier said when he joined he had no ambitions to be a general. "I just wanted to be a soldier," the Canadian Press quoted him as saying.
He has an enormous amount of operational experience, having served in Europe, the United States and across Canada. His Defence Department biography says he spent so much time with UN and NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia that "he is eligible to vote there."
Married with two sons, Hillier, according to his official biography, "enjoys most recreational pursuits but, in particular, runs slowly, plays hockey poorly and golfs not well at all."
Canadian Gen. Rick Hillier plays in a ball hockey game between troops and former pros in Kandahar, March 20, 2008. (James McCarten, Canadian Press)
This has not stopped him, however, from introducing one of his less well-known innovations — making the current military one of the more physically fit fighting units in Canadian history.
What's more, his hockey skills were on full display when Hillier and a group of ex-NHLers touched down in Kandahar in March 2008. They brought with them the gleaming Holy Grail of Canadian sport — the Stanley Cup — for a series of challenge games between soldiers and the retired pros.
"The soldiers on the base — there's probably a few of them who didn't sleep last night in anticipation of getting to play against some of their heroes, getting to see the Stanley Cup," Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the Canadian Press. "It's just a huge morale boost."
But as the games were played, speculation had already begun that Hillier was set to retire. For one, the general had brought his wife, Joyce, to the war zone for the first time, raising speculation that this was a farewell tour.
The visit also came on the heels of a February defence industry speech that was reported as having the tone of a farewell address.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Gen. Rick Hillier, left, chat prior to the reading of the throne speech, Oct. 16, 2007 in Ottawa. (Tom Hanson, Canadian Press)
The unfinished mission
The speech came after months of rising tension reported between Hillier and his political bosses. In October 2007, it was reported that the Conservatives were seeking to push the outspoken senior military commander out of his job.
But Prime Minister Stephen Harper denied the report, praising Hillier as an outstanding soldier. Hillier also said then that his work as defence chief was unfinished. "I love being a soldier," Hillier said in October. "I still have things to do here in the immediate future, and I intend to do them."
The Afghan mission will outlive Hillier's tenure as top soldier. The ultimate success or failure of the mission, which will now run until at least 2011, may lie at the hands of Hillier's successor.
Names mentioned include Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, the current head of the army, and Lt.-Gen. Walter Natynczyk, the vice-chief of defence staff.
Yet on the public relations front, Hillier appears to have made some real progress. The most outspoken Canadian military leader in a generation, he leaves a renewed military, equipped with new aircraft, vehicles and other equipment as well as real-life battle experience that has earned the notice of the world.
As a tireless military advocate, he raised the profile of Canada's military, which endeared him to his troops and gave Canada an important card to play at the NATO table.
"The man's amazing," Alexander, a Canadian soldier, wrote on a video blog with CBC's The National in December 2007.
"He's incredibly popular with our soldiers because he stands up for us."