Canada's top soldier not sorry for speaking out

Gen. Rick Hillier is offering no apologies for being outspoken about Canada's soldiers and the mission in Afghanistan, even if his comments have rattled some members of the Conservative government.

Gen. Rick Hillier is offering no apologies for being outspoken about the military mission in Afghanistan, saying it's his role to speak out for Canada's soldiers.

"Iam their champion and, in a way,I serve them as much as I serve the government of Canada, and you Canadians and Canada itself,"Canada's top soldiersaid Tuesday in a speech delivered to the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in Ottawa.

Hillier has come under fire for his vocal nature, particularly when he said publicly in October that it might be "10 years or so" before Afghanistan is strong enough to police itself.

Thecomment directly contradicted the Conservative government, which stated in its throne speech that Afghanistan would be able to handle its own security in just four years, by 2011.

Senior Conservative staff members, speaking anonymously, have lashed out at Hillier, accusing him of not being a team player.

However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a point of publicly praising Hillier on Tuesday, although he noted that the government and Parliament ultimately have the last say when it comes to making policy decisions about the military.

"General Hillier is a fine commander and the government has complete confidence in him," Harper said, speaking in British Columbia.

'We became distant'

OnTuesday, Hillier said that promoting Canada's soldiers is an essential part of his job.

"If we can't market Canada's sons and daughters back to Canada's moms and dads, we need to find somebody to replace us to do the job," he said. "Because that's what needs to be done."

He said the Canadian military used to keep quiet in the years after the Second World War, and their reputation suffered for it.

"We didn't talk to the media," Hillier said. "The story was not told and we became distant, alienating ourselves from our population."

He said the situation hit an all-time low during the 1993 Somalia affair, when Canadian peacekeepers serving in the African country tortured and beat to death Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old Somali boy they had taken prisoner. The military was criticized for trying to cover up the death.

'We were disowned by our population'

At the time of the Somalia Affair, Hillier said Canadian soldiers were ashamed and would not wear their uniform in public, but at the same time, they were not discussing the matter publicly.

"We had no starting point for our dialogue and we were disowned by our population," Hillier said.

He said the view of soldiers is improving as the media has showcased the military'swork to the public. Through the media, Canadians have seen soldiers helping out at home, with the floods in Quebec and Manitoba in the 1990s, and making progress overseas, on missions in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Canadians have, in return, strongly shown their support for the military, Hillier said, noting that some Canadians have taken to displaying yellow ribbons on trees and cars to mark the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan.

With files from the Canadian Press