Retired Gen. Rick Hillier says he agreed to oversee Ontario vaccine rollout because 'duty calls'

·5 min read

When Retired Gen. Rick Hillier received a call from Ontario Premier Doug Ford asking him to oversee the province's COVID-19 vaccine rollout, he knew he couldn't say no.

"My reaction was, I'm not looking for a job, I'm not looking for the stress that goes with this kind of appointment," Hillier told CBC Radio's Fresh Air on Sunday.

"And I thought about it for some hours after I spoke with Premier Ford, and then thought, you can't sit back, be critical of what's going on around you in many ways, I suppose, be saying I want to get back to a regular life, and then when your premier phones and asks you to be part of an effort to get us back to what we believe is a normal life, you can't say no," Hillier said.

"Duty calls is what went through my mind at the end of it."

Hillier, former Chief of Defence Staff for the Canadian Armed Forces from February 2005 to July 2008 and Commander of the NATO-led forces during the war in Afghanistan in 2004, said he was in Newfoundland and Labrador when he got the call.

Hillier said the appointment, announced on Monday, means balancing new responsibilities with previous commitments as well as his personal life, but he decided the role matters to the province and to Canada.

"There's nothing more important for the almost 15 million people in Ontario than getting this vaccine program right," he said. "And since I also believe that as Ontario goes, the rest of Canada goes, I don't think there's anything more important for Canada."

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

His official title is chair of COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force.

The task force will advise the Ontario government on delivery, storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. It will also provide support for the health care system to deliver a "phased" vaccination program.

That program will begin with immunization of vulnerable populations, then proceed with mass immunization. The province said it is planning the early rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine program with vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

The task force will provide clinical guidance on vaccine administration and monitoring of vaccine uptake. And it will implement a "broad and sustained" public education and community outreach effort to encourage vaccination.

"I talked to the premier and said: 'Yeah, I'm in, I'll do the best I can.' Nobody can ask more of me than that. I'll do the very best I can."

On Monday, Ford said: "This task force will be responsible for the largest vaccine rollout in a generation, a massive logistical undertaking, the likes of which this province has never seen. Because as soon as these vaccines are available, we have to be ready. We need military precision."

Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

Team being assembled to deal with War Against COVID-19

Hillier said a small team is already being assembled against what he called "the War" on COVID-19. That team will ensure the rollout is effective, he said. In a news release on Monday, the province said it will announce other task force members in the coming days.

Asked if overseeing a military operation in the Afghan desert against the Taliban will be useful experience when overseeing a vaccine rollout, Hillier said: "We're used to operating in an environment where there are a huge number of unknowns."

"And we know how to parse through the information, to develop the information and try to determine all that we possibly can to allow us to plan and execute an operation appropriately. We're used to operating in a void," he said.

"In fact, that's where we are with the drug right now. We don't know when it's going to come. We don't know which ones will get here first. We don't know all the characteristics of it beyond the fact that there will be some challenges logistically in handling it."

Hillier said he agrees with Ford that military precision is a very useful thing but added that everyone has a role to play.

"We're used to operating as a team and I think more so than anywhere else around. We pile on, we have each other's back, and we're straightforward and frank with each other. But we're all there with one mission."

Role is to 'tie all of those pieces together'

Hillier said his job is not actually rolling out the vaccine in Ontario, because there are medical professionals who will actually roll it out, but he will "tie all of those pieces together" with his small team to make it a nearly seamless operation.

"I've learned a lot by having the opportunity to serve with Canada's sons and daughters in uniform and their families and the civilians who support the armed forces for decades. I've learned a lot about leadership. I talk about leadership, write about leadership. And the one thing I always come back to is, if you're a leader, it's all about people," he said.

"And if you can energize people, focus them on the mission at hand, support them as they launch into those tasks, inspire them when they get tired, then you're going to be okay because they'll have the great ideas. Their minds will be brought to work and applied on behalf of the province and the people of Ontario."

Hillier says leadership is what matters

Hillier said leadership is what matters and the Canadian Armed Forces produces effective leaders.

He noted there was criticism over the recent naming of Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, current chief of staff to the Canadian Joint Operations Command and a former commander of the NATO mission in Iraq, as vice president, logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada. Some pundits objected because Fortin is not a medical professional.

But Hillier said that criticism is unwarranted.

"I think the Canadian Armed Forces produce leaders that are extraordinary," Hillier said.

"We have a program of education and training, of experiencing people, selecting them, and then tying all that together with a mentorship program that is phenomenal," he said.

"I don't believe there's another organization or institution in Canada that produces leaders in a systemic manner like the Canadian Armed Forces does."

In January 1998, Hillier led 15,000 military personnel under "Operation Recuperation" to help Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec recover from an ice storm.

Canadian Press/Terry Pedwell
Canadian Press/Terry Pedwell