Goals achieved, Hillier to step down as Canada's top soldier

Gen. Rick Hillier, the outspoken chief of Canada's defence staff and strong advocate of Canada's military intervention in Afghanistan, will step down in July.

Gen. Rick Hillier, the outspoken chief of Canada's defence staff and strong advocate of Canada's military intervention in Afghanistan, will step down in July.

"I have chosen to retire from the Canadian Forces and end my tenure as your Chief of the Defence Staff in July of this year," said Hillier, 52, in a letter to the military released Tuesday.

While the announcement surprised many, Hillier told a late afternoon news conference at the Department of National Defence in Ottawa that he had been planning his departure since last fall.

"It's been a full day," a relaxed Hillier said. But it was "not a surprising day from my perspective," he added.

When he was asked late Tuesday what his plans might include, Hillier told CBC News that "anything will certainly be second rate."

He dismissed speculation he might enter political life, but said, "I'll want an opportunity to contribute if I possibly can."

Before announcing his departure, Hillier said he had "several conversations" with Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and that he had also contacted Defence Minister Peter MacKay. As well, he said he'd heard from former prime minister Paul Martin, who appointed him in February 2005.

Harper told him there was "no hurry" for him to leave his post, Hillier said.

"The prime minister and I had a very enjoyable conversation," the general said, adding that "he understood that I had made my decision to depart at this time."

Hillier also denied that his leaving had anything to do with differences of opinion with the Prime Minister's Office.

"Disagreements are part of our life," he said, adding that he felt he had enjoyed a "positive" relationship with the PMO.

Last October, it was reported the Conservatives were seeking to push the outspoken senior military commander out of his job. But Harper denied the report, praising Hillier as an outstanding soldier and saying there had been no discussion about the possibility of changing the chief of defence staff.

The native of Newfoundland and Labrador has been in the job since February 2005, appointed by Martin. The role doesn't have a defined length, but the average tenure is three to five years.

Hillier made it clear to reporters that he had always intended "to stay for a short time."

"My goal was to set the conditions for our sailors, soldiers, airmen and airwomen to succeed in our critical and often dangerous tasks in defence of Canada, Canadians, and Canadian interests and values. We have achieved those key objectives, and reached the critical milestones I originally set out for us to reach by the end of my time as CDS," Hillier wrote.

Harper praised Hillier during question period

"Gen. Hillier has worked very well with the government," said Harper. "He has done an excellent job in rebuilding Canada's armed forces. He is a great Canadian and we are proud to have worked with him."

MacKay, who said Hillier's decision was for personal reasons, called him an "exceptional soldier."

"Gen. Hillier was among the most capable, dedicated, informed and professional people I've ever met," said MacKay during an appearance at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa to launch a round of Canadian Forces recruitment ads.

Hillier, considered one of the most charismatic and visible Canadian military leaders, was said to have been the driving force behind an increased Canadian military presence in Kandahar province.

Last fall, Hiller suggested that his work as defence chief was still 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."

But later that month, Hillier said it might be "10 years or so" before Afghanistan is strong enough to police itself, a comment that appeared to contradict the Conservative government, which stated in its throne speech that Afghanistan would be able to handle its own security by 2011.

Not one to mince words

Earlier this year, there was also a report that an angry Hillier called Harper over the government's handling of the Afghan detainee issue.

His blunt talk made headlines, for example, when he referred to the Taliban as "detestable murderers and scumbags."

He also raised the ire of some Liberals when he described the period of budget cuts to the military that began in 1994 as the "decade of darkness." The remark prompted then Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre to refer to Hillier as a "prop to the Conservative party."

Last February, Hillier urged Parliament to come to a quick decision on the country's role in Afghanistan, warning that the longer the debate went on, the likelier the Taliban would "target us as a perceived weak link."

But Hillier is viewed as highly popular among the military rank-and-file.

His own career has spanned three decades — he joined the army right after graduating from Memorial University.

Before being named chief of defence staff, he was the head of the army and also commanded the NATO-led multinational Afghanistan mission in 2004.

David Bercuson, director for the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies in Calgary, told CBC News that he was surprised to learn Hillier is stepping down. Bercuson said he thought Hillier would stay on for a few years, since we are in the middle of a war.

However, he noted, three years is a normal term for defence staff.

Bercuson rejected speculation that Hillier may have been pushed out of the post by the government.

"Hillier has almost become an indispensable part of the Canadian Forces," Bercuson said. "I think the government realized he's so good for morale — he has such credibility with our allies that they wanted him to stay around."

He postulated that Hillier was resigning now because "the strain and the tension on the man has been so great that he's decided to give it a pass."

Bercuson added that Hillier is leaving "at the top of his game right now" — the Afghanistan mission has been extended and the military is stronger and better equipped.

"This is probably as good as time as any" to quit, Bercuson said.