The Ontario government hired seven advisers to assist retired general Rick Hillier as the head of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine-distribution task force, all of whom had ties to him or military causes.
Although Mr. Hillier was paid $20,000 a month as the province’s vaccine point man, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail under Ontario’s freedom-of-information laws show several of the advisers out-earned him.
In late November, Premier Doug Ford announced that Mr. Hillier, who was chief of defence staff for the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) from 2005 to 2008, would chair the province’s task force co-ordinating the distribution of vaccines from their arrival through delivery to health units, and finally into the arms of Ontario residents.
The others officially on the nine-member team were announced in early December last year, and included prominent doctors such as Homer Tien, the current task force chair, and Kieran Moore, recently appointed as Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, and was also supported by public servants.
But until the spring, the task force also had a separate secretariat of appointees whose names were never publicly highlighted.
“We were just General Hillier’s team,” said Serge Labbé, a former CAF brigadier-general who served in Afghanistan under Mr. Hillier and became his chief of staff for the vaccine rollout.
Three others on the secretariat who served in Afghanistan under Mr. Hillier were former lieutenant-colonel Bernard Derible, former colonel William Brough and former lieutenant-colonel Rory Kilburn.
The group was rounded out by former colonel Anthony Ashfield, a CAF logistics expert, and two civilians – John Williston and Kerri Tadeu. Mr. Williston is a former Department of National Defence communications strategist. Ms. Tadeu, a psychiatric nurse, was commended by the federal government last year for her work organizing volunteers to clean up a stretch of road known as the Highway of Heroes in commemoration of soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
When the Ontario government announced the names of the nine official task force members in December, it also said Mr. Hillier would have “secretariat support.” The government told The Globe at the time it would have “more to say in the coming days” about it.
When asked why no public statements have been made about the appointments, a spokesman for Solicitor-General Sylvia Jones, who oversees the task force with Health Minister Christine Elliott, did not answer directly. “In the Dec. 4, 2020, news release regarding the members of the vaccine task force, we indicated that the operation would be provided secretariat support,” Stephen Warner said. He added that these appointments were done by minister’s letter and not through an order in council. (Such orders are usually publicized, while ministers letters may not be.)
The appointees’ names were posted on the province’s website with those of all others who serve on boards of government agencies.
Records released under freedom-of-information laws show that Mr. Hillier, who left the post on March 31, when his contract expired, had billed about $65,000 for his work by mid-spring. The seven other appointees, most of whom left within weeks of Mr. Hillier, were paid $800 a day when they worked on task force business. Records show that by the end of May they had each earned between $65,000 and $112,000 and that the government paid them a total of $610,800.
By comparison, the appointed members of the COVID-19 distribution task force can accept $398 per diem for the days on which they meet.
According to Ontario Treasury Board Secretariat directives, government appointees are compensated at different levels depending on expertise. Those who earn $800 a day must be vetted by the bureaucracy to ensure they “possess unique experience and rare skills.”
Mr. Warner said the appointees to the secretariat passed these processes.
“We recruited individuals, in consultation with General Hillier, with the military-grade experience to help support this critical operation,” Mr. Warner said.
The Globe has attempted to contact Mr. Hillier and the secretariat members by e-mail, phone and through LinkedIn social-media accounts to ask about their work for the task force. Mr. Hillier did not respond to an e-mail or a follow-up phone call. Ms. Tadeu responded that she was unavailable for an interview because she was volunteering at vaccination clinics. Four of them could not be reached.
Mr. Labbé and Mr. Derible agreed to interviews about their work and said that it should not be surprising that Mr. Hillier reunited several Afghan war veterans to help address the COVID-19 crisis. They said Mr. Hillier provided strategic leadership and rallied the public service and medical professionals toward a shared sense of urgency, and the team’s mission was to help put his directives into action.
That included acquiring supercold transportation containers, and figuring out which booking systems were best. The government also had to determine who should get their shots first.
“We supported Hillier, supported certain officials, getting things ramped up,” Mr. Derible said, adding they considered the vaccine rollout akin to a military-logistics operation.
“Doctors are awesome at doctoring – they don’t think strategic-planning wise,” he said. “Infectious-disease specialists are awesome at infections – they do not do strategic planning or strategic implementation.”
“What you do when you’re in command is you surround yourself with people who are ultracompetent and who are ultraloyal,” Mr. Labbé said.
He said Mr. Hillier told medical officers of health across the province that they were like his subcommanders. “The 34 medical officers of health know their [public-health-unit] areas far better than we do and we respected that,” Mr. Labbé said.
“Our role was to help the government of Ontario in developing those tools with a view to ensuring that those 34 medical officers of health could do their jobs as expeditiously as possible.”
The team came together quickly. On Nov. 22, the day before the task force was officially announced, Mr. Ford called Mr. Hillier in Newfoundland to ask him to come to Ontario, Mr. Labbé said.
Mr. Labbé signed on when Mr. Hillier called him the next day.
Mr. Brough, who has known Mr. Hillier since their days as young officers in the Royal Canadian Dragoons, was brought aboard shortly after that. “Bill and Rick don’t have to talk to exchange brain waves – they know what they are thinking,” Mr. Labbé said. “They were professionally joined at the hip.”
Mr. Hillier brought in Mr. Derible and Mr. Kilburn, both former advisers from the Afghan war, according to Mr. Labbé. The first, Mr. Derible, was “a professional acquaintance and friend” of Mr. Hillier’s. The second, Mr. Kilburn, had also done work with the Afghan government.
The team brought in Mr. Ashfield, the retired CAF logistics expert, and the two civilians.
Mr. Labbé said he recommended former DND communications strategist Mr. Williston. He was “the guy I chose to be my strategic communications adviser when I was running the strategic advisory team” in Afghanistan.
He said his best recollection is that Ms. Tadeu contacted Mr. Brough to join the effort, and that she was well-known in military circles.
As a task force adviser, she visited scores of vaccination clinics, he said, and made useful recommendations about syringes, and “brought a unique civilian perspective, which was very refreshing.”
During peak activity earlier this summer, Ontario was administering more than 200,000 vaccine doses a day. But earlier, when supply was building, the government came under heavy criticism for being unprepared. The opposition New Democrats, who have called the vaccine rollout “slow and sloppy,” have demanded an inquiry into the COVID-19 response and vaccination strategy.
Several times, Mr. Hillier was the focus of that criticism. There was a public outcry after the province paused vaccine delivery over the Christmas holidays. Mr. Hillier defended the move at first but eventually conceded “in hindsight, it was the wrong decision.”
In late February, Mr. Hillier announced that Ontario’s vaccine booking system would not launch until March 15 – weeks behind those of some provinces. At the time, he said it wasn’t necessary to have a system in place until mid-March because of a lack of supply from the federal government.
Today, members of the support secretariat say that the summer’s vaccination successes flow from the strategies they helped lay out months ago.
“We went into this as if we were on operations, as if we were at war,” Mr. Labbé said. “That is what we did, and that is what we shared with the government of Ontario, and as a result we are seeing the fantastic results we are seeing today.”
The freedom-of-information request shows the following amounts paid to the secretariat appointees from the time the task force was created in late November until the end of May: Mr. Brough $85,200; Mr. Ashfield $106,000; Mr. Kilburn $83,600; Mr. Williston $83,200; Ms. Tadeu $75,200; and Mr. Labbé $65,200.
The Office of the Premier says that Mr. Derible – who made $112,400 through to the end of May, according to records – continues to advise the government.
He was “instrumental” in getting vaccinations into workplaces, said Ivana Yelich, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ford. She added that this was “really helpful” in advising the Premier.
Some of Mr. Hillier’s past personnel decisions have been controversial. In 2008, as he was leaving his job as chief of the military, he recommended that Mr. Labbé be retroactively promoted – with a paycheque to match.
In the 1990s, Mr. Labbé was faulted in a federal public inquiry for his role as a commanding officer during the Somalia Affair, in which two Canadian soldiers beat a Somali teenager to death. Today, he says he accepts those findings. “I did assume full responsibility for everything that has happened there,” Mr. Labbé said. “… Unfortunately, on my watch, some rogue elements in the unit that was deployed hundreds of kilometres away from my headquarters committed an unspeakable crime.”
Mr. Labbé said that his role in the vaccine campaign, and that of the other appointees, was to assist Mr. Hillier and the bureaucracy while staying out of the spotlight.
“Our agenda, this task force team that supported Rick Hillier, our agenda was the government of Ontario’s agenda. And so we were there to work together with them, to help in every possible way, but certainly not take credit and not advertise our presence,” he said.
With reports from Stephanie Chambers
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