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SCOTT TAYLOR: Combat officer Hillier an odd choice for vaccine rollout overseer

File photo of Gen. Rick Hillier, former chief of defence staff.
Former chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier: "It is also puzzling to think that the citizens of Ontario will be more comfortable having a soldier in charge of vaccine distribution rather than a medical professional or someone skilled in supply-chain management," writes Scott Taylor. - Lyle Aspinall

Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the appointment of retired general Rick Hillier to head the provincial task force that will oversee the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Ford told reporters that this challenge “needed a general” and he went on at length as to why Hillier was the right man for the job.

The media were quick to join in singing the praises of the former general, with most pundits commenting on Hillier’s stellar character.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have known Hillier since he first entered the national spotlight in 1998. At that juncture, Hillier was the public face of those Canadian Armed Forces personnel tasked with providing “aid to the civil power” during the devastating ice storm that struck Central Canada. The gruff, straight-talking Newfoundlander was an instant hit with the storm-weary civilians and Hillier became known as the general who defeated Mother Nature.

Later in his military career, Hillier became the primary figurehead for Canada’s military intervention in Afghanistan, first as the army commander and then as the chief of defence staff.

While I strongly objected to Canada’s deployment of troops to what has since proven to be an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, I always respected the fact that Hillier was a first-class combat officer and a charismatic leader of the troops.

That said, I have to question how his skill sets and professional experience are suited to overseeing the widespread distribution of a vaccine across Ontario.

Perhaps it is reassuring to some civilians to think that a veteran military man will bring leadership to this distribution team. While outwardly flattering, as it would illustrate a high level of public confidence in our Armed Forces, it also would reveal a lack of understanding of the military profession.

Hillier was an armoured corps officer, and when he enlisted he trained to fight against Soviet tank armies during the Cold War. Leaving aside his brief encounter with Mother Nature, Hillier spent his senior military years overseeing Canadian troops fighting a desperate counter-insurgency battle in Afghanistan.

At no point did Hillier manage the distribution of supplies, let alone medical vaccines.

That sort of professional expertise — and supply chain management is indeed a challenging profession — is the purview of military logistics officers.

In fact, the importance of having the right amount of supplies delivered at the right time is so crucial to the function of the CAF that they have their own logistics branch, complete with their own distinctive cap badge.

The military would not expect a logistics officer to command tanks on the battlefield and nor would they task an armoured corps officer to arrange the delivery of supplies.

In outlining what Hillier’s task force will be responsible for, the Ford government said it will advise on the delivery and storage of vaccines, provide clinical guidance of the administration of the vaccine as well as information and technology for civilians handling vaccine administration.

It is also expected that the Hillier task force will engage in educating the public to encourage vaccination.

One has to wonder how those provincial health-care professionals who are already engaged in dispensing vaccines such as the flu shot and shingles vaccination will feel having an ex-combat soldier now supervising their efforts.

It is also puzzling to think that the citizens of Ontario will be more comfortable having a soldier in charge of vaccine distribution rather than a medical professional or someone skilled in supply-chain management.

You wouldn’t hire a dentist to fix your plumbing or a plumber to fix your teeth, so why a soldier to hand out medicine?

If this is simply an attempt by Ford to add a charismatic leader to a figurehead role, then shame on Ford. At a monthly salary of $20,000 plus expenses, Hillier is not a cheap figurehead.

Hillier was a great soldier; he remains a charismatic leader, but his resume does not qualify him for this particular job.

To be fair to Doug Ford, he is not the only politician to tap military commanders for vaccine distribution. Last Friday, Justin Trudeau announced Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, an artillery officer, would head Canada’s federal task force. Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump appointed retired four-star General Gustave Perna to oversee the ridiculously named OPERATION WARP SPEED vaccine distribution effort.

For the record, Gustave was a career logistics officer.

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