Former Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, the new Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk (left) and Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean greet Canadian veterans and family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan at a change of command ceremony in Ottawa Wednesday. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

Gen. Rick Hillier has officially retired as the leader of Canada's military, handing over the reins to Gen. Walter Natynczyk in a ceremony Wednesday in Ottawa.

Soldiers marched and Snowbird planes flew overhead moments before Hillier passed a ceremonial flag to Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, who handed it over to Natynczyk.

"It has been my privilege to have served you as your chief of defence staff, and to have had the opportunity to represent you across our country and around the world," Hillier said, addressing the soldiers participating in the ceremony directly.

"I leave as chief of defence staff awed by you, awed by all our troops, who in my view are absolute national treasures, Canada's sons and daughters, and heroes to all."

Called a 'soldier's soldier'

Hillier, 53, has often been called a "soldier's soldier" because of his reputation for putting the welfare of his troops above all else. On Wednesday, he joked that he would cut his 52-minute retirement speech short so as not to keep the soldiers at the ceremony standing at attention for too long.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, speaking after Hillier, said whenever Hillier met with soldiers in Afghanistan, or at home, he always took the time to shake their hand or pat them on the back.

"He was hard when he had to be, always human and charismatic to the core," MacKay said. 

Hillier, who was born in Campbellton and considered by some to be Newfoundland's favourite son, is taking over as chancellor of the university he once attended — Memorial University of Newfoundland.

He thanked his wife and two sons profusely at the ceremony for the stress and strain they endured in the three years he served as chief of defence staff, and the 35 years he has been in the military. Hillier noted that birthdays were usually celebrated months early or late, children's first words were missed and children's first steps had to be recorded on video and viewed later.

Natynczyk honoured to take on new role

Natynczyk, 50, thanked Hillier for his inspiration and leadership. Although he noted that he and Hillier are different — Natynczyk supports the Ottawa Senators and Hillier supports the Toronto Maple Leafs — they share many of the same values. Both are committed to a strong military, ready to protect Canadians at home, defend North America, and help those in need around the world, Natynczyk said.

"I believe it is our similarities that are really important," he said of Hillier and himself.

"To everyone in uniform I am honoured to be your chief of defence staff," he added. "As your chief, I represent all of you. I am a soldier, I am a sailor, I am an airman and I'm a special forces trooper. I look forward to serving you and serving with you."

Speaking to reporters after the ceremony, he said he remains committed to Canada ending its mission in Afghanistan in 2011, and he noted that a great deal of progress has already been made in the country.

Natynczyk, a Winnipeg native and father of three, was vice-chief of defence staff and has 33 years experience in the military. He has said one of his first steps in his new job will be to visit the troops in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said both Natynczyk and Hillier are outstanding men who understand the important duties of a chief of defence staff, which he called "the ultimate guardian of Canada's sovereignty and security and place in the world."

Oversaw growing Afghan mission

Hillier was appointed chief of defence staff in February 2005 by then Prime Minister Paul Martin and his defence minister, Bill Graham. The Liberals were prepared to start boosting the military again after what Hillier later called "the decade of darkness."

The three years Hillier spent at the helm were turbulent, as he presided over Canada's mission in Afghanistan, attended numerous memorial services for fallen soldiers, and fought hard for more money and equipment for his troops. 

When Hillier stepped into his job, Canada only had about 600 troops in Afghanistan, serving in the relative safety of the capital, Kabul, with NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

Within three months, Canada was sending just over 1,200 troops to the unsettled province of Kandahar and by this April, when Hillier announced he would be stepping down, Canada had 2,500 troops committed to Afghanistan. By then, the mission had been extended twice.