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Rick Hillier, Nation Builder of the Decade, International

Sean Kilpatrick

Rickey John (Rick) Hillier

Birthplace: Campbellton, Nfld.

Age: 54

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Rick Hillier's rise through the ranks of the Canadian Armed Forces can be likened to a gale force wind. He's been an outstanding front-line soldier; he did requisite service in the Ottawa bureaucracy; he picked the right mentors, made great connections with the Americans, got the promotions that mattered - from commanding an armoured brigade in Germany to Fort Hood, Tex., to the great Canadian ice storm, to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan and finally the top job.

As chief of Canada's defence staff for just three brief years in the decade's second half, Rick Hillier succeeded in painting Canadians as warriors - warriors at home and warriors to the only people outside the country that many of us think are important: the Americans.

Few individuals in our history have been as single-handedly accomplished at recrafting the nation's image - particularly to our neighbours - and rewriting its mythology: delivering the lethal blow to the military's representation as peacekeeping boy scouts (and NATO free-riders) and shaping a new icon of soldiers who leave home to kill and be killed.

General Hillier, on every occasion that's presented itself, has talked about the new Canadian fighting forces that will go on combat missions to the globe's failed states, not to peace-keep -we only have 176 troops on United Nations peacekeeping missions - but to fight people that are deemed bad.

He has had no shortage of critics. He has polarized Canadians on his vision of the military's role. Month by month, a growing majority of Canadians oppose the Afghan mission. Gen. Hillier, who is on a first-name basis with much of the American high command, has been accused of making the Canadian Forces an adjunct of the U.S. military and being a prop for Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

But at home, he has reconnected Canadians with their soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen. And abroad, as Queen's University military historian Allan English says, "Gen. Hillier's actions as chief of the defence staff have raised the profile of Canada with the U.S. and NATO as a nation that is prepared to commit troops to difficult and costly combat missions."

The manifestations of that raised profile are not hard to find. Whereas only a few years ago, the U.S. government witheringly dismissed Canada as a military partner, senior U.S. officers turned up at last year's 2009 annual meeting of Canada's Conference of Defence Associations to praise Canadian military contributions. And U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, paid a very public visit to Ottawa in December, noting in a speech filled with lavish compliments that Canada's losses in Afghanistan have been proportionately higher than any other allied nation.

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"This has earned Canada a great deal of goodwill in Washington, which has no doubt helped improve Canadian-American relations and led to favourable U.S. consideration on some contentious issues between the two countries," Prof. English said.

Rick Hillier once said Canadians need to pay attention to their army. He's made that happen.

Michael Valpy is a writer with The Globe and Mail.

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