LILLEY: Gen. Rick Hillier answers the call of duty

Rick Hillier is driving along the Trans-Canada Highway telling me how he came to be the man in charge of Ontario’s COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Task Force.

The retired general and former chief of the defence staff has spent the last three months in his native Newfoundland, living in the Atlantic bubble. However, he and his wife are making their way back to Ontario to lend a much-needed hand.

“I didn’t volunteer,” he said with a chuckle. “I wasn’t looking for a job.”

Hillier may not have been looking for the work but Premier Doug Ford was looking for Hillier. A senior government official says Hillier’s name came up as Ford and his staff were discussing what was needed to make sure the vaccine distribution went smoothly.

When Hillier’s name was raised, Ford grabbed his phone and the general answered the call.

“The premier phoned, and he and I chatted, and he asked if I would take on the mission,” Hillier said.

After thinking about the offer for a couple of days, Hillier called back and accepted. His appointment was made official on Monday during Ford’s regular COVID-19 update.

“This is going to be the largest logistical undertaking in a generation and we need an expert in logistics. We need a general in charge of this massive undertaking,” said Ford.

Ford said the remaining members of the task force will be named in the coming weeks.

A government news release said the task force will “include cross-government and external representation with diverse expertise in operations and logistics, federal-provincial relations, health and clinical domains, public health and immunization, ethics, and information technology and data.”

“A lot of work has been done,” Hillier tells me, noting that he was given a peek behind the curtain during a conference call with several senior bureaucrats on Sunday.

Hillier was a career soldier from the time he joined the military in 1973 until his retirement from the position as Canada’s top soldier in 2008. In between, he served in Germany, Bosnia, across Canada and was a key player in the military deployment to help eastern Ontario and western Quebec recover from the 1998 ice storm.

Prior to his appointment as chief of the defence staff, Hillier commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan. As CDS, he was in charge of the war effort in that country from February 2005 until July 2008, a time of increased risk and responsibilities for Canada’s troops in the field.

Both Hillier and Ford have described this as a massive undertaking, and they are right. For that reason, I think Hillier is a good choice for the job. Anyone who has been anywhere near the military knows that they are masters of logistics.

As the old saying goes: “No beans, no bullets, no army.”

Hillier sees his job as bringing all the different parts of government, the health system, and industry together under one plan for the vaccine rollout. Health Minister Christine Elliott revealed last week that if things go to plan, Ontario should get 1.6 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and 800,000 doses of the vaccine from Moderna between January and March.

“The Pfizer one is obviously the most difficult to handle from a logistics point of view, but if we can handle that, we can handle anything,” Hillier noted.

Pfizer’s vaccine is required to be kept in freezers at a temperature of –70C making it incredibly difficult to transport and distribute.

Knowing that Hillier will be helping to plan that rollout makes me feel a bit more confident. There is a long way to go between now and vaccine doses being available, but Ontario just hired the right man to get the job done.

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