A Mixed Legacy

Published date01 September 2009
Date01 September 2009
Philippe Lagassé
A mixed legacy
General Rick Hillier and Canadian defence, 2005-08
| International Journal | Summer 2009 | 605 |
General Rick Hillier was a remarkable chief of the defence staff. During his
tenure from January 2005 to June 2008, Hillier wielded an unusual degree
of influence for Canada’s highest ranking general, and he sought to use this
influence to rebuild and reshape the Canadian forces. As part of this effort,
he assumed a prominent role in the formulation of Canadian defence policy.
Hillier was also a widely recognized public figure, achieving near-celebrity
status in a country that is usually uninterested in defence and military
matters. For Canadians accustomed to “silent soldiers and sailors,”Hillier’s
three years as chief were, if nothing else, notable for the degree of attention
garnered by the Canadian military’s top officer.
Hillier’s time as chief of the defence staff was equally noteworthy for the
adulation he received from the defence community, media outlets, and
several pundits.1Though a few commentators expressed misgivings about
his worldview and frank language, critical assessments of Hillier were in the
Philippe Lagassé is an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Public and International
Affairs, University of Ottawa. He thanks those serving and retired politicians, officials, and
officers whose insights were invaluable in the writing of this article.
1 Examples of such adulation included Lewis Mackenzie, “Rick Hillier’s right, so back
Globe and Mail
, 1 August 2005; Paul Manson, “He’s our man,”
Globe and Mail
25 August 2006; Marcus Gee, “Rick Hillier gave the military its voice: don’t shut him
Globe and Mail
, 2 November 2007; and J.L. Granatstein, “The defender of truth,”
Ottawa Citizen
, 16 April 2008.
| Philippe Lagassé |
| 606 | Summer 2009 | International Journal |
minority.2There was an especially strong consensus on Hillier’s impact on
the forces and Canadian defence capabilities. Hillier was widely praised for
rehabilitating the military and honing Canada’s defence posture. Under his
direction, it is commonly held, both the forces and Canadian defence issues
began an overdue ascent from neglect to respect. According to this prevailing
account, Hillier’s presence at the head of the Canadian military represented
a high point for the forces and for Canadian defence policy and politics.
Indeed, when contemplating his inevitable departure as chief, Janice Gross
Stein and Eugene Lang lamented that there were “too few Hilliers” to fill the
void he would leave.3
This decidedly positive interpretation of Hillier’s legacy merits a
reexamination. While there is little doubt that Hillier was instrumental in
securing much-needed funds for the defence department and increasing the
public esteem of the Canadian forces, the outcome of his program
innovations were more ambiguous. Of note, Hillier’s efforts to “transform”
the forces’ command and force structure produced questionable results.
Hillier’s term as chief, moreover, was marred by a significant failure. When
he was given an opportunity to improve the military’s position in Canada’s
traditionally imbalanced civil-military relationship, Hillier repeatedly
overstepped his bounds, compelling the civilian authorities eventually to
reduce the military’s input into defence policy. While identifying Hillier’s
failure and ambiguous achievements does not detract from his
accomplishments, it suggests, at the very least, that his legacy is mixed.
The aim of this article is to reassess Hillier’s legacy as Canada’s chief of
the defence staff. In so doing, the article seeks to spark a wider academic
debate about the impact of this noteworthy military leader on Canada’s
defence policy and politics. We begin with an analysis of Hillier’s successes.
The article then discusses the former chief’s ambiguous policy achievements
and, last, examines Hillier’s failure in the realm of civil-military relations.
2 Examples of these critical views included Lawrence Martin, “The perilous charms of
Rick Hillier,”
Globe and Mail
, 10 August 2006; Richard French, “Not so fast, General,
leave policy to politicians,”
Globe and Mail
, 20 November 2007; and Linda McQuaid,
Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the US Empire
(Toronto: Doubleday Canada,
2007), 70-76.
3 Janice Gros s Stein and Eugene Lang, “Too few Hilliers,”
Walrus Magazine
, 22
November 2008.

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