In the novel Uprising, Douglas Bland makes it pretty clear that his fictional CDS, Gen Andrew Bishop, does not respect the Prime Minister Jack Hemp.  That in and of itself wouldn’t be too strange, if it wasn’t for the fact that (apparently) no-one else respects the Prime Minister either.

During the meeting in Langevin Block where the CDS first(!!!) briefs the PM, the surface level narrative seems to imply that Jack Hemp is a powerful and capable politician.  Although we only have some bare hints to go off of, we know that Hemp was in power four years ago when Molly Grace first recruited Bill Whitefish.[1] Also, the language of how everyone speaks seems to imply that Hemp has just come off an election victory, implying that he can legitimately claim the mandate of the Canadian people.

Yet, here’s just a sampling of the descriptions we get about of Jack Hemp from the Chapter in which we first meet him:

On the other hand, Hemp knew nothing about national defence and security issues and made no effort to understand them….

…General Bishop stared at the table, thinking grimly that nothing in Hemp’s experience had prepared him even remotely for the reality of this moment…

…Actually Hemp didn’t know anything of the sort.  He was as ignorant of the laws governing civil-military relations in Canada as he was of anything else to do with the military.  In his entire time in office, he had only talked to the CDS once, at a reception for the Secretary General of the United Nations…

…The CDS hardly knew where to begin.  A complex answer would befuddle the prime minister, but he decided to keep it simple for the moment; there was enough confusion in the room as it was…

We also know that Hemp is likely the PM who promoted Gen Bishop to his job.  This means that, given what we know about Gen Bishop’s recent accomplishments, this clueless buffoon of a PM might also be the man who authorized the Zimbabwe Intervention.

In the US, Generals are often treated like rock stars, with the more historically famous ones getting movies (plural!) made about them.  In Canada…we don’t really do that.  While we got military heroes, most of them aren’t Generals.[2]

Two of the more prominent figures coming out of the 90s, Gen Lewis MacKenzie and Gen (later Senator) Roméo Dallaire were closely associated with the Yugoslavia and Rwandan missions respectively.  The former ending inconclusively while the latter in outright tragedy.  This coincided with the scandal of the Somalia mission, the disbanding of the Airborne Regiment and the brutal cutbacks that reduced the CAF to a skeletal state.  Even though both men conducted themselves with courage and skill, both ended up tied to the time period we in the CAF now refer to as ‘the Decade of Darkness.’

For the latter half of the 90s and into the early 2000s, there was a strong sense that the upper echelons of the CAF were staffed by risk-adverse bureaucrats.  This was not entirely true (these things are always more complicated then they look) but that was the common impression and it was firmly embedded by the time I joined up in 2001.

Then along came Rick Hillier, and shit changed.

Rick Hillier held the post of CDS from February 2005 until July of 2008.  This was a bit longer than the average term for a CDS but not excessively so.  During this time he oversaw some of the major developments of the Afghan War, expedited the purchase of badly needed equipment, and pushed through some serious re-structuring of the CAF intended to modernize it for the 21st century.  But this bare bones description doesn’t begin to describe just who the man was to us.

Rick Hillier talked to us instead of at us.  More than that, he listened.

It’s hard to explain this to someone unless you’re used to being ignored, but for the rank and file Canadian Force members, that meant so much.

I only heard the man speak once in person, and there I was part of a large crowd that sort of dampened the effect.  At the time I thought he was a pretty good speaker, but that was all.  It wasn’t until much later when I’d heard a dozen other Generals try to hit that same ‘common man’ note and fail miserably that I understood how rare this talent was.  Hillier knew how to reach out and make a connection, even if it was only a tenuous one in the middle of a crowd.

I didn’t fully grasp what he meant to people until around 2006-07 when I started into a cycle of regular force tasking that would lead me to a deployment to Kandahar.  This had the effect of pulling me out of the militia world and placing me onto a number of Reg Force bases (mostly CFB Gagetown at first) and by extension, into a lot of Reg Force JR’s Messes.  Pretty much any Mess you went to, if you hung out drinking long enough, someone would have a story of meeting Gen Hillier somewhere on exercise or in theatre.  The man could give a decent speech, but in person was where he made his real connections.  That’s where he won hearts and minds.

General Hillier received his appointment to the position as CDS from Prime Minister Paul Martin, a Liberal Party PM who succeeded PM Jean Chrétien.

Martin & Chretien
Paul Martin (left) succeeded Jean Chrétien (right) as PM.  The fact that Chrétien presided over much of the 1990s did not endear him to the men and women of the CF.

Here is how he describes the event in his memoir A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats, and the Politics of War in January 2005:

It was surreal to be welcomed to the Prime Minister’s official residence.  Like most Canadians, I had never been in the house before and had wondered numerous times, whenever I passed the front of the grounds on Sussex Drive, what it was like inside.  Three things about 24 Sussex struck me immediately.  First, about twenty suitcases, packed and labelled, were lined up in the foyer when we arrived, and I nearly tripped and fell flat on my face trying to get around them.  I later learned that as soon as our breakfast was over, the Prime Minister, his family and key staff were off on a combination Christmas holiday and official visit to Europe and North Africa.  I was the only thing that stood between them and warmer climates.  The second thing that attracted my attention was the enormous natural Christmas tree that took up much of the living room.  My wife, Joyce, and I had always gone overboard on Christmas decorations, including putting up our own enormous tree just the previous week, and I wished that she could be there to see – and smell – this tree.  Lastly, I was astonished at how cold the house was.  The windows of the sunroom, just off the living room, overlooked the Ottawa River, but you wouldn’t have known it that morning – they were covered in frost that seemed inches thick.  Obviously, the renovations recently publicized by the National Capital Commission as necessary for 24 Sussex were desperately needed.

Within minutes Tim Murphy arrived and Prime Minister Martin joined us in the living room, next to that enormous, beautiful tree.  I was in my dress uniform and the other three men were dressed casually in shirts, sweaters and slacks.  After the residence staff brought in a large pot of coffee, we sat down and started talking.

Paul Martin only held the post of Prime Minister from Dec 2003 to Feb 2006, and for most of that time it was a minority government[3] that was hanging on by a thread.  He came to power after more than a decade of Liberal Party rule, by which time Canada was starting to grow sick of Liberals.  There were scandals and accusations of corruption, and while Martin’s rise saw a pretty significant turnover in the Party senior leadership, there was no getting around the fact that he was an old guard Liberal at a time when the Liberals were not popular.

I had started sketching out some of my thoughts when we were interrupted by Sheila Martin, who came in to say hello.  I introduced myself, and we talked a little bit about family and, specifically, about our new grandson, Jack, who had been born two months earlier, on October 8.  Although I did not know it at the time, this was the start of a friendship that would develop over the next year between Martin, Sheila, my wife Joyce, and me, and that would become one of the more enjoyable memories of my time as Chief.

Rick Hillier is a Newfoundlander.  While it’s not really possible to generalize about a population of an entire Province, more often than not the people of Newfoundland-Labrador are the kind of loud, outgoing, kind hearted people who form fast friendships that will last a lifetime.  I’ve worked with Newfies for a couple of days on a tasking, got along well enough, then run into the same person months later completely at random on another tasking, only to be greeted like a long lost brother.[4]

What I’m saying is: I’m sure they got jerks out there somewhere, but they seem to be well hidden.

So it’s not surprising that a man like Rick Hillier formed a friendship with the Martins.  What’s interesting to note is that he saw fit to mention it here in his memoirs.

While most accounts I’ve read describe him as a kind and fundamentally decent man, Paul Martin was not an especially popular Prime Minister, and his departure from politics was not lamented by very many.  More than that, he was seen as a fundamentally different sort of person than Rick Hillier.  Hillier was straightforward and blunt, to the point that he occasionally incurred some controversy with the larger Canadian public.  Martin, on the other hand, was seen as a consummate politician, diplomatic and careful never to commit to firmly to a position.

All things considered, it’s not that surprising he got pretty clobbered by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the 2006 election.

Stephen Harper
Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  The helmet-head hair style only got worse with time.

I’ve met guys in the army who see Hillier as the anti-Liberal CDS:  The guy who stood up to the liberal establishment and told those laté-sipping hippies what’s what.  This image is so established that I’ve even met a few people who attribute Hillier’s appointment to the Harper government instead of the Liberals.

But Rick Hillier was appointed by Paul Martin.  He and his wife Joyce got along great with Paul and Sheila, and although their time together barely lasted a year (note the singular tense in the above quote) I don’t doubt that if they meet again, it will be like old friends coming home.

So Rick Hillier held the post of CDS for a year before Martin’s government fell and Stephen Harper moved in to 24 Sussex.  So how did the General from the Rock[5] handle his first meeting with his new boss?

In early February, just after the Conservative victory, Deputy Minister Ward Alcock and I were invited to Stephen Haper’s office – he was still in the Opposition Leader’s office, as he was prime minister-elect until his new government was sworn in – and with Derek Burney, Chief of Staff for Herper’s transition team, and the Prime Minister-elect, we discussed what was happening with the Canadian Forces. Most of the time we talked about the Afghan mission. We pulled up a bunch of chairs around a coffee table, and I laid out three large-scale maps of Afghanistan and walked Harper through what was happening on the ground, where our troops were, their job and the challenges and risks.
At the end of discussion, I said to him, “I realize that you’re just coming into office as Prime Minister and we have a change in government. We are now in combat operations, with young men and women dying, so the Prime Minister of Canada needs to have complete confidence in his Chief of the Defence Staff. As you know, I was selected by Mr. Martin, and if you want me to continue I’d be delighted, but if you don’t I’m prepared to step aside and let you select your own Chief. You have to have a CDS who you have confidence in.”

That’s right.  He offered his resignation.

There’s an expression in the army that ‘shit rolls downhill,’ but the reality is that responsibility goes up, not down.[6]  Canada was at war, and regardless of who was commanding in the field, the buck stopped with the government of the day.  Starting on 06 Feb 2006, that was the government of Stephen Harper and whatever came before was now his responsibility.  The Afghan War was now his war, and he had to own every decision from that point onward.

This was a life and death situation.  Canadian soldiers had already been killed in action, and the worst was yet to come.  So Gen Hillier did the decent thing and offered to step down if Harper felt he had a better candidate in mind.  He recognized that (as good as he was) he was not bigger than the mission itself.  If his new PM had a different plan, then his last action as CDS would be to make it easier for him by offering to resign so that he wouldn’t have to be fired.

This isn’t just me speculating here, either:

I was fully prepared to voluntarily step aside if he wanted to pick his own Chief of the Defence Staff, and I wanted to offer him that option right away. I felt it was that important that the Prime Minister have confidence in his senior military officer and have his own team running the show.

He immediately said, “Oh no, no. We’ll see how things pan out, but I want you to continue as Chief.”

So there’s a story I heard from some RCR guys.  It could be true, or it could be one of those apocryphal stories that should be true.  Gen Hillier’s visiting a FOB in Afghanistan.  Troops are generally happy to see him, but one of the Royals spots the pistol Rick’s got on his belt and the mood sours.  Gen Hillier was sporting one of the new Sig Sauer pistols that had recently been adopted by parts of the CAF, whereas the Royal in question had a (very) old school Browning 9mm.[7]

Normally, whining about the age of your kit is a losing proposition in the CAF.  But this soldier was what we called a door-kicker.  The bulk of his job involved storming buildings and fighting at some very close quarters, where split-second things like the quality of your sidearm could mean the difference between life and death.[8]  So he notices the General’s packing the latest model while he’s got a museum piece.  And well, given that this was a war zone the guy had no fucks left to give, he raised the issue rather bluntly, depending on who’s telling the story.

I like to imagine that there was a young officer nearby who almost swallowed his tongue in horror, but apparently Hillier was more surprised that the Royal was carrying a Browning than the fact that he might actually complain about it.  And what was the General’s response?  According to the story, he asked for a couple of TI (temporary issue) cards, and signed his Sig over to the Royal in exchange for the Royal’s Browning.

Like I said, I got no idea if this story is true.  I’ve heard it from a couple of sources but it’s always been second or third hand, so who knows?  The point is, that’s the kind of CDS that Rick Hillier was: If you told me someone like CDS Gen John de Chastelain traded his sidearm with an angry soldier, I wouldn’t believe you.  Gen Hillier?  Yeah, I’ll buy that.  He was the kind of guy who’s response to a borderline insubordinate complaint would be to give a soldier the pistol off his belt.  Even if it never happened.[9]

Rick Hillier was the sort of CDS that Bland wishes Andrew Bishop could be.

And a few more points about resignation:

That was the first and only time I ever offered Prime Minister Harper, or anyone else in his government, my resignation. Although there was a lot of speculation, in media and government circles and even within the Department of National Defence (including from several people who should have known better), that I regularly threatened to resign to get my way, quite the opposite was true. Threatening to quit might have worked once, but the government would have lost patience with this pretty quickly – no country can be run on such a fickle basis. If I had threatened to resign as many times as some people said I had, my term as Chief would have been pretty short indeed.

A general – any general – serves at the pleasure of their government.  The paradox of power is that the more you accumulate, the more hooks will end up snagging you.  Each of these hooks is an obligation pulling you in various directions, as various interests (your troops, your commanders, neighbouring units and other authority figures) exert a different (and sometimes opposing) set of requirements.  A Chief of Defence Staff during a war has to endure a lot of these obligations, and while there may be moments when they can put their foot down and make things go their way, those chances are probably a lot more fleeting than we’d like to think.

More than anything else, however, they are answerable to their government.

Despite a lifetime as an officer in the CAF, Douglas Bland seems to have missed this point.

[1] We’ve talked about it before but just to summarize: In the flashback, we hear Molly Grace call out Jack Hemp by name four years prior to the Uprising.  This implies that Hemp was either Prime Minister back then, or at least the Minister of Indigenous Affairs (which is a vital, high ranking Cabinet position), before becoming Prime Minister and winning a recent election.

[2] I’m going to exclude our friend, the real-life Gen William ‘Billy’ Bishop as he earned his fame as a pilot in the First World War, during which he was a junior officer.  He held the rank of General (and Air Marshall!) during the Second World War, but his duties were limited to supervising training and recruitment for the RCAF.  He didn’t command troops as a General, and his fame and legend were born of his more personal effort, rather than his skill at command (where he might have been subject to criticism for losing lives).

[3] This is something that happens when no party has a majority of seats in Parliament.  One of the parties, usually the largest but it can sometimes be a coalition of smaller parties, forms a government anyway.  Since they don’t have a majority they have to rely on support of like-minded members from other parties to pass legislation.  Minority governments are constantly at risk of being defeated in a confidence vote, which would result in either the winning party/coalition forming a new government or else triggers a new election.

[4] The fact that Newfies have a gloriously bewildering accent that seems to grow all the more impenetrable the more they drink only adds to the fun of hanging out with them.

[5] The Rock – a popular slang term for the island of Newfoundland (the Labrador part of the Province is attached to the mainland).  And it’s not just the rest of Canada who calls it this either, the locals call it the Rock too.

[6] Yes, I know that – all too often – the lowest ranking person is the first one under the bus.  But regardless of who gets screwed first or worst, the actual responsibility runs upwards, not downwards.

[7] Just to be clear here, the CAF wasn’t using a modern version of the venerable 1911-model Browning 9mm.  They were using actual pistols that had been purchased in the 1960s and held in war stocks since then.  While the design itself is excellent and dependable, some of these pistols are old to the point of being museum pieces.

[8] At close quarters, if your rifle jams it’s sometimes a better option to just drop it (the sling will keep it against your chest anyway) and draw your sidearm.  The theory being that clearing an really bad obstruction takes longer than drawing a pistol.  This is assuming that the pistol won’t jam as well, hence the importance of having an absolutely top-of-the-line model.

[9] And in true CAF fashion, he’d make sure the paperwork was filled out.

5 thoughts on “Supplemental Reading – A Soldier First

  1. Couple of tidbits:

    a. Some of our generals WERE actually popular prior to Mackenzie and Dallaire. Granted, this pretty much ended with WWII, but Gen Currie, LGens Morrison and McNaughton were genuinely popular with people – Morrison’s funeral in 1926 was huge and shut down the downtown of Ottawa while it was on.

    Then that altercation with the Austrian Corporal happened and we stopped making heroes out of the high priced help.

    b. Canada’s Brownings. They were the final development of JM Browning’s system and adopted by Canada in 1944 (first in the Commonwealth to adopt a semi-automatic pistol for general use, not just for specialist or to allow officers to buy one with their own money and use it). The ones we have were actually built in WWII by Inglis Canada (purveyors of stoves, washing machines, etc. both before and after the war), but were put in war storage. They were brought out of storage in the 60s after we wore out a lot of the WWII stuff, because we had them and had already paid for them. In the finest tradition of the CAF, we now save money by rebuilding those that wear out, because the Cdn taxpayer likes to think that military equipment doesn’t wear out…

    c. The story of Hillier trading TI cards and pistols with a vocal Royal is likely an urban legend. And in any event only solved the problem of that one soldier, vice dealing with the systemic issue that the CAF is still issuing equipment to soldiers that was made by their great-grandmother, and initially issued to their great-grandfather to liberate Holland. It speaks to an underlying issue that often occurs with the CAF, that we will “Make Do” with kit that should likely have been replaced years ago because procurement induces huge amounts of sticker shock in a public that tends not to blink an eye when it comes to upgrading their personal cellphone or car, but when we need big green trucks….

    d. Another reason Paul Martin was unpopular was his role in gov’t prior to taking over from Jean Chretien. He was Finance Minister in the 90s, and ended up getting us out of a the huge deficit Canada had prior to the recession of the early 90s by slashing government spending – which included lots of cuts to the biggest part of discretionary government spending – Defence. Being the guy who for 12 or so years went, “No, we can’t afford to do that” tended to make him less than popular with a public that views cuts to their favourite bits of government spending as “too much” or “cruel”, while cuts to other parts of the budget are just “good financial stewardship” (essentially, by bringing the deficits incurred prior 1992 to 0 by cutting spending and not cutting taxes, he managed to tick off pretty much everyone).


    1. a. I wasn’t saying that Canadian Generals haven’t been respected or popular, just that they never had the near mythic status that American ones did. Americans like Patton and MacArthur have had movies (plural) made about them, many of which border on worshipful, and they continue to be revered today.
      b. I consulted with our mutual friend, Eric the weapons tech, about the Brownings. Apparently the Afghan War was quite the stressor and we’ve gone through most of our 1960s war stock. So the replacement program will have to be accelerated in the next few years.
      c. I’m 99.9% sure it’s an urban legend, but the guys telling it to me believed it 100%. The fact that it’s believable at all is the point. That’s the kind of impact Rick Hillier had.
      d. Yeah, nobody loves the killjoy with the calculator who interrupts the party to ask how much everything’s going to cost.


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