Another Hillier?

Some doubt there will ever again be a Newfoundlander serving as defence chief

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on May 29, 2010
Retired chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier

It's been nearly two years since Gen. Rick Hillier - the most outspoken and colourful Canadian military leader in more than a generation - retired as this nation's top soldier.

The Newfoundland native was often described as bold and brassy during his three years as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and oversaw an unprecedented renewal of pride and investment in the Canadian Forces.

It's been nearly two years since Gen. Rick Hillier - the most outspoken and colourful Canadian military leader in more than a generation - retired as this nation's top soldier.

The Newfoundland native was often described as bold and brassy during his three years as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), and oversaw an unprecedented renewal of pride and investment in the Canadian Forces.

Many say he also instilled a collective pride among people from this province for staying true to his roots.

Hillier commanded at a time when Canada's image as a peacekeeping nation was eclipsed by heavy combat - and painful losses - in Afghanistan.

It was the first time since Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949 that one of its native sons reached such heights in the military.

That's despite the fact that, on a per capita basis, Newfoundland contributes more than its share to the ranks of the military.

So, the obvious question is, will we ever see another Newfoundlander at the top levels of the Canadian Forces?

Not anytime soon, say some military observers and active and retired officers contacted for this story.

Scott Taylor, publisher of Esprit de Corps, a military magazine, said there is a good crop of rising stars in the Canadian Forces, but he's hard-pressed to name one from this province.

"However, they are from the same mould as Ricky," Taylor said, jokingly referring to Hillier by the name he said is listed on his birth certificate.

There are a handful of high-ranking Newfoundlanders in the forces, but Taylor said another generation could pass before a Newfoundland native follows in Hillier's footsteps. He said that's unfortunate.

"It won't be beneficial to us if that's the case," said Taylor.

Taylor said Hillier remade the mould for a CDS, and said it's no longer a given that "ring knockers" from the Royal Military College will fill the post.

Hillier could not be reached for comment.

But the question of whether there's another Rick Hillier in the pipeline from this province is a tantalizing one for people like Lt.-Col. Alex Brennan, commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Brennan said the Canadian Forces is an organization of roughly 60,000, and the chances of reaching the senior leadership levels are slim.

"I just don't know," said Brennan.

"I think it's only a matter of time, but how and when and who ... it's such a fluid environment."

Brig.-Gen. Tony Stack from St. John's is likely the highest ranking Newfoundlander in the military at present. Stack is commander of the army in Atlantic Canada, overseeing a force of some 7,000 regular and reserve forces.

He's highly educated, has operational experience in Afghanistan, and is considered a mentor to people like Brennan. But he's a reserve officer, and his age may be a factor.

It's generally felt that for anyone to have a shot at being the CDS, they need to reach the rank of general by their mid-40s.

"My chances of being CDS are nil. It will never happen," Stack said in an interview.

However, sources say Stack may not yet have peaked, and could one day command the army reserve.

"Canada would be well-served with Tony in that post," said one officer, anonymously.

There's usually a Newfoundlander at the highest ranks of the navy, but observers say that as long as Canada is engaged in a ground conflict in Afghanistan, the CDS will likely come from the army.

And one name that gets mentioned by his comrades is Col. Gregory Burt, a Corner Brook native who some say has the potential to reach the rank of general.

Burt is in his late 40s, and is one of the few Newfoundlanders to ever serve as an officer in a Quebec-based infantry regiment. He is currently based in Ottawa, and recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan.

In an e-mail exchange, Burt stated: "Yes, there is potentially a Newfoundlander out there with the potential of becoming a CDS. But when? How long is a piece of string?"

It's been reported that upwards of 10 to 15 per cent of those in the military have Newfoundland roots, despite the fact the province represents a small fraction of the overall population.

It's also known that the same proportion is not present in the officer corps. And since there are maybe 100 general officers in the Canadian Forces, the stars have to align perfectly for anyone with their sights set on the top job.

That's not to say that Newfoundlanders are not making their mark.

Lt.-Col. James Camsell, for example, is deputy commander of 36 Canadian Brigade Group, which has reserve units in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. He recently returned from a deployment in Afghanistan, where he mentored members of the Afghan army, and is said to be in line for a meritorious service medal.

In civilian life, Camsell is a teacher at Holy Heart of Mary high school in St. John's.

And Col. Howard Coombs of St. John's is director of the new distance learning program at Canadian Forces College. He has a master's degree, has plenty of operational experience, and is an author of several books.

He will deploy to Afghanistan in September in a civilian role as an adviser to the task force commander.

He said there are many "great Newfoundland officers" spread throughout the military, but noted: "If you ask me to cite you a name at this point, I'm not so sure."

But he wouldn't be surprised if a Newfoundlander was at least a contender for the top job in the next five to 10 years.

Stack agrees, but wouldn't throw out any names.

"It's certainly possible. Odds are, given the sheer volume of Newfoundlanders, there's a good possibility."

troberts@thetelegram.com