Retired Canadian Forces Gen. Rick Hillier says the War in Afghanistan worked to bridge a gap between Canadians and their men and women in uniform.
“You might agree or disagree with the mission, but those troops are still there acting on your behalf,” Hillier said. “I think the most powerful thing was that Canada’s moms and dads saw their sons and daughters in uniform for the first time in a long period of time.
“I think (Canadians) do see us in a different light and I think they see us in an incredibly positive light.”
Hillier was the keynote speaker at a Chamber of Commerce Brantford-Brant dinner attended by more than 200 people at the Best Western Brant Park Inn on Tuesday night.
A variety of factors led to the growth in a divide between the Canadian Forces and the public during recent years, Hillier said.
“The No. 1 challenge will remain, forever, staying connected to the great people of our country,” Hillier said. “I think for a period of time in our history, I perceived, as did many others, that we had lost that connection. We were therefore no longer functioning as Canada’s armed forces.
“I think that division, that gap between an armed forces and its population, is never healthy for a country, even one as strong as Canada. Those 35 million Canadians did not necessarily see us as their sons and daughters.”
Hillier, a career military man and former Canadian Forces chief of defence staff – the highest-ranking position in the military – said there are several reasons for the formation of such a divide.
“One is the smallness of the Canadian Forces,” Hillier said. “Our very tiny footprint is hard to see across Canada. Two is that many of the places where we are, even in that tiny footprint, are outside of the major centers of population.
“If you’re away from the centers of population, then you’re not seen.”
Most military operations are staged overseas and out of sight, Hillier said.
“We kind of hid away from the Canadian population, those of us in uniform ourselves,” Hillier said. “In many cases, we did not want to be seen by Canadians as their armed forces in some respects.
“That was a problem after the Somalia issues and debacle that we had. In fact, that led to a really deep division in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”
Hillier, who has written two books on leadership and his military career, now works as a senior advisor for TD Bank Group.
Hillier said the most rewarding part of leading the Canadian Forces was working with the people who serve.
“It was a privilege and pleasure to command Canada’s sons and daughters,” Hillier said. “Every day, when I was having a tough day, when I got frustrated by things in Ottawa, when I was frustrated by a bureaucracy, when things had not gone well in other parts of the organization, I could recharge my batteries…and I could sort of re-gather my determination to carry on by going out and seeing those young men and women and the things they were doing.
“They are completely ready to sacrifice everything for our country, no reverse on them, asking very, very little in return. It’s people. That is what I will remember about my 35 years, three months, one day and 14 hours in uniform serving Canada.”