The Commons: General Canada

Hillier shares some of his wisdom—and a joke about George Stroumboulopoulos

by Aaron Wherry

Rick Hillier started with a joke about something his late father had said. Then one about his wife and his propensity to talk. Then one about missing his flight. Then one about his Newfoundland heritage. Then about the stature of his audience. Then about George Stroumboulopoulos. Then about Alex Trebek and Wheel of Fortune.

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The occasion was a dinner in a hotel ballroom in downtown Ottawa to mark the beginning of a weekend conference of “conservative-oriented” thinkers. General Hillier, formerly the top-ranking soldier in the Canadian military, was preceded to the stage by Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform party. Manning, with remarkably blond hair for a man of 66, was preceded to the stage by Monte Solberg, a former Conservative government minister who has left politics and now has a blog.

In front of the stage were approximately 20 tables with approximately 10 people seated at each. Each table had a brown tablecloth and a vase of red or white flowers. Men, each in a black or navy blue suit, outnumbered women by a factor of three to one. Waiters in black suits, white shirts and black bow ties served roasted butternut squash with green valley apple bisque to start and a main course of slowly roasted rib eye of western beef with fresh herb pan juices, roasted potatoes and seasonal fresh vegetables.

As guests—including half a dozen Conservative MPs and political science professor Tom Flanagan—nibbled at their dessert (a granny smith and caramel tart tatin with vanilla bean ice cream), General Hillier proceeded with his speech.

“Life is good, isn’t it?” he asked. “We live in the best country in the world … You need to stop and remind yourself of that.”

Encouraging his guests to find perspective, he noted that “nobody is shooting at us.”

As he spoke, he clicked through a series of slides. There was a starving child in a foreign country. A child in Afghanistan who had lost his leg. A child receiving a vaccination. Children attending a makeshift school.

He repeated his theme half a dozen times. “Leadership matters,” he said.

He showed a picture of a soldier staring down the rifle of a gun and talked about the “value of people” and the need for “direct communication.”

He then advanced to a picture of a Taliban leader beside the quote “Canadians are good fighters, but their politicians are weak.” He explained that this man pictured, who had apparently said this, was now dead. The crowd cheered.

Hillier then clicked through a series of pictures as examples of leadership. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a leader, he said, when he visited the troops in Afghanistan. “This is leadership,” he said, as two large screens showed a picture of Mr. Harper in military fatigues greeting a Canadian soldier.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was a leader, Hillier continued, when he renamed a stretch of highway to commemorate fallen soldiers. The chairman of Tim Horton’s was a leader when he opened a franchise on an army base in Kandahar (Hillier explained how he himself had fought the “bureaucracy” to make this happen). NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was a leader when he sent the Stanley Cup.

Hillier moved then to a series of stories about soldiers overcoming injury and loss, remaining resolute, determined and brave. One had lost both his legs above the knee, but lived to walk and snowboard.

He alternated between self-deprecating quips and thinly veiled references to examples of his own leadership abilities. He dispensed his wisdom. It’s all about people. People want a vision. It’s never as good or as bad as you think. Never waste a crisis. Take your good luck when it happens. You make your own good luck. Sometimes, as a leader, you have to say stop. Challenge the experts. Trust your battle buddies. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. Moral courage is often more difficult than physical courage. Be yourself. Humour is good. Sometimes you have to go with the flow.

The audience was attentive. The laughter was frequent. Hillier—a man who seems to idolize both Douglas MacArthur and Bob Hope—seemed happy to be where he was.

Departing the stage he declared himself a Canadian and clicked to a final slide—a man in orange jacket and toque, sitting on two cases of beer by the side of the highway, beneath a sign indicating a deer crossing, holding a gun.

The Commons: General Canada

  1. Perhaps Mr. Hillier should speak to the senior Mr. & Mrs. Diab.
    No doubt his line about how “nobody is shooting at us” would cheer them up immensely.

  2. Chretien was a leader when he kept us out of Iraq.

    • Nice try at revisionist history, the Americans did not ask Canada to participate in Iraq, Chretien committed troops to Afghanistan.

      By the way, what did the old Cretch ever end up doing with those Shawinigan Shuffle golf course shares?

  3. “Departing the stage he declared himself a Canadian and clicked to a final slide—a man in orange jacket and toque, sitting on two cases of beer by the side of the highway, beneath a sign indicating a deer crossing, holding a gun.”

    When did we get a militia? Can anybody join?

    • Ahh, what an image. ‘Cause you know, hunting could be any nationality. But drunken hunting in a toque? Quintessentially Canadian.

      • FTW!

      • Come to think of it, just about anything you can do while drinking beer and wearing a toque is quintessentially Canadian.

        • I’m gonna VOTE drunk next time. Think I can pull it off? I should qualify as a “voter with special needs” no?

          • I’m sure you’ll pull it off. Lots of Canadians must vote drunk. It’s the only way you can account for some of our MPs.

  4. This post has reminded me why I don’t miss Hillier one iota.

  5. Real leadership is when the appointed CDS stops deferring to elected officials on matters of strategy, planning, and diplomacy. Real leadership is when the CDS starts contradicting government policy at his own press conferences. Real leadership is when the newly retired CDS nakedly flaunts his partisan political affiliation. Real leadership is when you put ego before country.

    • Irrespective of his political leanings, I welcome candour and self promotion over behind the scenes gamesmanship that one might find in the mid 90′s CDS, or in the Zacardelli RCMP.
      -
      “Take it or leave it’, and let us judge you based upon where you stand. Seems like a reasonable deal.

      • But we can’t judge the CDS. He’s not democratically elected (for which thank God). Do you want every ADM in the government talking candidly to the press? Seems to me that would strip our elected officials of their prestige and thus of their power, just as Hillier’s big mouth stripped a series of ministers of their prestige and power.

        • His was a risky strategy – no doubt. And in a more stable (majority) gov’t he’d have been toast ages ago. The timing was right for him (Martin and then Harper), and he took advantage.
          -
          He’s a maverick. We need more in Canada. I support outspoken people, irrespective of their position -so long as it’s not bs or spin etc.

          • “Mavericks” who have sworn to be non-mavericks are a different category. There’s a reason why the CDS is not supposed to be a TV star, and it’s called the chain of command. How would the CDS like it if his junior staff officers held press conferences contradicting CF policy? Sure Hillier got away with it, but that makes it OK? In my view the man should have been broken.

          • Jack, I know I am walking on thin ice with you on this one, as you are a history/military scholar, and my knowledge is largely swayed by what I read and see in popular media.
            -
            So, “maverick” – is Rick Hillier, in the most generous of terms, a George Patton type” maverick” (go with me on this one)? Was the movie Patton an Hollywood production? He was politically incorrect, for sure. But ineffective? Not so sure.

          • That’s a very good comparison, Dot. I don’t think Hillier has ever had an opportunity to display his strategic brilliance, as the Afghanistan war has been such a hard slog (no punching through enemy lines and zipping along to the Rhine, etc.), but insofar as one can judge on personality I bet he’d be a pretty darn good WWII general — of the fire-eating Patton type. He certainly isn’t a weak personality, and that counts for a lot, though it was never put to the test.
            -
            But re: Patton it should be noted that the Americans kept him on only because they couldn’t do without him (again, rather like Hillier). Even so, Patton’s maverick style (insubordination, press conferences, quips) so infuriated Eisenhower that he was relieved of command after Sicily and kept on a very tight leash even in France. And he was later fired, basically, for Red-baiting in occupied Germany. As with MacArthur, when he got too close to making his own policy Truman had the good sense to drop him immediately. As you say, Hillier took advantage of weak prime ministers and ministers, who didn’t have Truman’s guts; but I can’t help seeing Hillier as another example of the weakening of ministerial and Parliamentary authority, which is profoundly undemocratic. Which is not to deny that Hillier did great things with the CF, but surely those could have been achieved without mocking the Cabinet.

          • Thanks for that. Interesting. Being outspoken or opinionated for the better good does have its downside, as I’m sure you know firsthand.

          • It has also been credibly reported that Patton’s death was not accidental. After an OSS-staged accident failed to kill him, the NKVD was allowed to complete the job with poison.

          • You nailed it Jack.

        • J@ck, I am more than willing to recognize the DND as a distinct society within the federal bureaucracy. The Minister and the PM knew what they were getting when they promoted Hillier. I suspect they even WANTED what they were getting: a big-mouth frank-talking guy who could hopefully put the military in the more positive light it needed with Canadians, at a time in our military history when it mattered. We most certainly CAN judge the CDS, but we can only take it out on the politicians who hired him.
          As for now, he is private citizen Hillier. Pay attention or not, judge him or not. As long as he does not betray any state or military secrets, he is as free to stand up at a microphone as any of us.

          • As long as he doesn’t mind disgracing the non-political tradition of our career officer corps. Which, to be sure, he doesn’t.

          • At least he’s not going as far as Laurie Hawn or Gordon O’Connor, however.

  6. The “This is leadership” stuff is a bit off-putting, isn’t it. I mean, all the examples are laudable actions to one degree or another. However, “This is leadership” suggests that these examples are somehow quintessential examples that encapsulate some central core of what it is to be a leader, while I don’t think any of those really do.

    Harper visiting the troops, OK, there’s a legitimate aspect of leadership there, to some extent. The McGuinty and Bettman bits are laudable acts, but hardly worthy of a “This is Leadership” mantra, imho. I’ll give the Tim’s guys a shout out for good “corporate” leadership, but again, hardly exemplary of some core element of what defines leadership.

    I presume he also applied the “this is leadership” thing to pics of soldiers in the field (he must have, right?) but if anything, that just makes the other examples look more pathetic, doesn’t it? If I were McGuinty, or Bettman, or Harper, I’d be embarrassed to have the “This is leadership” mantra applied to my actions in the context of this speech.

    The General’s speech certainly seems to have shown that guy who said our politicians are weak though, eh? Weak?!?! They get on planes and GO PLACES. They name highways after people who fight for them. They ensure that our fighters have donuts and coffee, and can see sports trophies while in theater. WEAK??? Clearly our politicians are pillars of moral and physical courage.

  7. a final slide—a man in orange jacket and toque, sitting on two cases of beer by the side of the highway, beneath a sign indicating a deer crossing, holding a gun.

    I thought this image was being saved for the cover of Michael Ignatieff’s forthcoming book, True Patriot Love.

  8. Ah, now I understand the whole Dion-not-a-leader thing. If only he’d jumped on the “support the troops” bandwagon with an empty, self-aggrandizing gesture of his own…

  9. Thanks, Aaron. I hope you’re able to report on the rest of the presenters.
    At least the ones who get to present before some public-spirited citizen calls in the bomb threat ..(:

    • Pass on the bomb threat. Not necessary. Coyne is there.

  10. Did you hear the one about the General who quit the war just when he knew he was going to start losing it and then went on a speaking tour telling everyone what a great leader he was?

    • Hillier is the bozo that said we had to kill the scumbags. Now we know for certain that this cerebral strategy had failed miserably. We did not get leadership from this want to be U.S. marine but Bush like platitudes on how we are morally superior to the people of the middle east . He is an embarrassment .

  11. Well, Mr. Hillier will do well for himself in the corporate world, make some good bucks sitting on the many boards. He will live quite comfortable with an easy retirement. He won’t have to walk around with crutches or need wheelchair like some of those who served under him in that crazy little war!!!!

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