C2C’s Exclusive Interview with (Retired) General Rick Hillier: Former Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff

“Peacekeeping is only one of the tools in the toolbox to use as a G8 nation around the world to help make a more stable world that is beneficial to Canada and all Canadians.” ~ Rick Hillier


Former General Rick Hillier, CMM, MSC, CD, a native of Newfoundland, served as the Canadian Chief of the Defence Staff from February 4, 2005 to July 1, 2008. C2C editor Chris Schafer interviewed Mr. Hillier recently on his thoughts on Canada’s role in the world and Afghanistan.

C2C: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced during this election campaign that Canada’s military commitment in Afghanistan will end in 2011 as scheduled. Will a 2011 pullout leave to large a hole in Afghanistan, since Canada has played such a large part in the mission to date?

(Retired) General Hillier: I think it would leave a hole, without question and the job will not be finished by then. There will still be a requirement for international military forces because the prerequisite for any rebuilding of a nation is security of the population; the Afghan security forces are a significant distance away from being able to handle that themselves and so international military forces are needed.

As we have discovered over this last 12 to 18 even 24 months, but particularly right now, more international military force is needed in the short-term to make sure security is sufficient, to ensure some of the development and reconstruction projects can carry on and actually show the people of Afghanistan, particularly in the south and the east, that there is a future for them. That the future can be better with a government that they choose as opposed to with the Taliban.

So international forces are going to be required in Afghanistan for a long time and we need more of them—not fewer. If Canada leaves, somebody else will have to fill that hole and of course the debate around Canada has been, have we done our share? My response to that would simply be what is the share of a G8 nation? And we aspire to be a G8 nation, to be one of the nations that influences and shapes the world and we’ve got to play the role of a G8 nation and that includes all the responsibilities, the easy ones and the tough ones like security operations in a place like Afghanistan when we’ve committed to it.

C2C: What should be Canada’s ultimate objective in Afghanistan? How close is Canada to achieving this objective?

Hillier: I would say the first thing we want is a more stable region as a geo-political strategic goal and that’s a more stable southwest Asia and that can only be of benefit to Canada. By helping increase stability, we actually decrease the refugee flow, we improve the lives of people, and we help ensure that things like human rights can actually be brought to the people. But even more importantly, we help governments in that area and countries if they are more stable, which allows them to be able to remove any base that terrorists like Al Qaeda or other ideologically-minded groups could use.

Inside of Afghanistan itself, I think what you want to do is produce a stable Afghanistan. That is my belief. I think our goal is a stable Afghanistan that can look after most of its own security needs by itself and that with the support of the international community can become a part of a more stable region and more stable southwest Asia.

That is a region that has always been unstable and poses massive threats in refugees and weapons and terrorism and diseases and things of that nature because of instability. So a more stable region and inside the country, a more stable Afghanistan that can basically look after itself, are our objectives.

C2C: Why are so many Canadians opposed to cooperation with Americans on ballistic missile defence?

Hillier: I don’t think the ballistic missile defence issue has ever been thoroughly communicated, explained or articulated to Canadians. There was no communication strategy or effort to really explain to Canadians – “This is what it would do and this is the immense value to Canada because of the kind of threats that are out there either now or will grow in the future.” As a result, it got hijacked and the perception of it by Canadians was changed dramatically.

C2C: What would you identify as the most significant National Defence policy shift taken by Prime Minister Harper and his government?

Hillier: The most significant shift is to say that before Canada commits to a new mission it will take that mission for approval to the House of Commons. I think that is a significant change from what has occurred in the past in Canada and in my view, it is a positive one because it makes sure that Parliament debates and then decides upon that mission.

It is significant because it imposes upon Parliament a huge responsibility to ensure that when they ask those young men and women to deploy and do something that is high risk, that they support them, they make sure they are equipped for the job, trained for the job, have the right number of troops, the right equipment on the ground, and that they are in a structure within an alliance because you never go on those missions by yourself.

If Parliament says “Yes, we’re going to send these young men and women on a mission because it is worthy of a potential sacrifice of lives by people who wear the nation’s uniform,” they should then take it upon themselves to support them in every way possible. That means, in my view, even if the motion passes in Parliament by only one vote, when Parliament decides, it decides for the country and it decides for all 33 million Canadians and commits troops on their behalf. Whether they agree or disagree with the mission is irrelevant at that point in time. That’s how a democracy works.

So I think that approach is a significant change. If that doesn’t bring Parliament into more engagement in the mission from the point of view of ensuring that conditions are set for success and accountability for what occurs on that mission, then I would be very surprised. I think that’s a significant shift for a country that we have not yet seen fully develop.

C2C: Is the Canadian military more or less respected now than in the past (domestically by Canadians and internationally by our allies)?

Hillier: From the allies’ perspective, all I can offer are my own personal anecdotes. When during the last two to three years, I went to the Military Committee at NATO and spoke with the 26 Chiefs of Defence Staff, when Canada’s Chief of Defence staff spoke, they listened. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they had all but given up on Canada’s Armed Forces and now they believe they are at the forefront of everything.

Here in Canada, it’s now impossible to go anywhere in our country, if you’re in uniform, if you’re recognizable as a sailor or airman or airwoman or soldier, or me as the Chief of Defence staff, without Canadians in huge numbers just simply coming up and saying “I appreciate what you do”, and “thank you for what you do”.

So I think if you put all those things together, I come to one conclusion: the credibility of the Canadian Forces is enormous right now. I think that is a very positive thing. I think Canadians here at home – for the first time in my memory, perhaps since WWII – have actually started to consider the Armed Forces as their Armed Forces.

So based on all of those things, I think the Armed Forces have immense credibility with Canadians and with the major country that shares our continent and with other international allies and friends with whom we work.

C2C: What did you discover about politics given your past position of Chief of Defence Staff in the Canadian military?

Hillier: The thing that I learned about politics is that I am going to avoid it. So I will not be running for office. I think political leaders carry an immense burden in our country. We want people to run and lead our country and yet as soon as they throw their hat into the ring and say they are going to run, we immediately perceive of them as being in it for their own benefit, their own gain, their own good, and that’s simply untrue.

Secondly, I’m not sure how effective politicians are in a Parliamentary system. If you’re a backbencher or even a member of Cabinet and you look around and ask what is it that you actually accomplish? I’m not sure that the burden that you carry and the laying out for public digestion and criticism of your private life in the extreme actually balances what you can then accomplish as a political leader. So what I learned was I’m not going to be a politician and I’m not going to run for office. But I admire those who do.

C2C: In your current Ottawa office with the law firm Gowlings, you have a rock on your desk. Why?

Hillier: It’s from Dieppe, the beaches of Dieppe. My wife and I were there after I left the Canadian Forces. I don’t think I am being arrogant in saying that my profile was fairly high across Canada and so we really wanted to simply disappear and so we decided to go to France and go and spend two weeks touring the battle fields of Normandy.

One of the most moving things that we did in our time in Normandy and then up at Dieppe was to go to the Canadian war cemeteries. It’s absolutely beautiful. Then you go through and you read the names of the soldiers and the airmen and airwomen and sailors who were buried there, and you see their regiment or unit badges, or their nationalities or something special about them or a little quotation from their family. But what is most sobering and stark and tragic are all those grave markers that say “Known only unto God”—all those soldiers in huge numbers who were killed and bodies never found or identified. So that was very emotional. It was very emotional from that perspective, but yet it was a great way to disappear from Canada and we brought back a rock.

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