OTTAWA – Andrew Leslie is standing at the bar of a strip-mall brasserie in the east-end suburb of Orleans, talking to a man he knows from another world.
Although Leslie is professorially dressed in a brown tweed jacket and tan sweater, his coiffed grey hair swept to the side, the man at the bar remembers him from the “sandbox” – the army’s not-so-subtle nickname for the deserts of Afghanistan.
As Canada’s commander for almost a decade during the Afghan war, Leslie would visit the country at least twice a year following his own six-month tour with the armed forces.
“Usually I’d take one tough young soldier out with me when I went on patrol with the regular line infantry, and so he was one of those,” Leslie says.
“I got to know him a little bit then.”
The veteran, Leslie tells me once he is gone, is now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – as do thousands of veterans in Canada.
“He’s had to wait six months for an evaluation, and he’s still in a series of tension-filled meetings with the bureaucracy – which takes its tone and tenor from the government – to try to get the support that he needs,” says Leslie.
“It’s not working for him.”
At 57 and out of the army, Leslie is now the Liberal candidate in Ottawa-Orleans, a bilingual neighbourhood of row houses and malls, where he lived at times during his 35-year military career.
The former lieutenant-general professes that a “fire in my belly’s been lit” by his involvement with the Liberals under leader Justin Trudeau, whom he met at a social function, after – he takes pains to point out – he retired from the forces.
Leslie appears to have embraced the optics of his new profession: he campaigns at 6:30 a.m. at bus stops; brings an assistant with him to tape lunch interviews; and spontaneously breaks into French at times.
There has also been controversy.
Even before Leslie’s official nomination, records released showed he claimed $72,000 in expenses to move 2.5 kilometres away. (Leslie has defended his use of the army’s moving fund and accused the Conservatives of partisan attacks).
There was also the drama that accompanied Leslie’s nomination for the Liberals, when the so-called star candidate bested lawyer David Bertschi, whose nomination was blocked by the party due to outstanding debts. A fracas ensued at the vote and the police were called, which Leslie chalks up to “passion.”
But perhaps most worrying for Prime Minister Stephen Harper is the fact that Leslie is now one of 18 Liberal candidates or nominees for candidacy who are veterans – a demographic that has traditionally voted Conservative, but may turn away this election year after recent controversies including veterans’ office closures and more than $1 billion in unspent funds.
It’s all a bit awkward, considering Leslie once briefed the prime minister’s team on the war in Afghanistan.
“There were occasionally tension-filled moments between myself and senior members of the Harper government. I can be relatively outspoken and fairly determined. But that’s natural,” he says.
“I was responsible for the 57,000 people in the army. We were very focused on fighting a very bloody war. So tempers sometimes got a little bit frayed. Not necessarily mine, but others.”
After nine years at the helm, some 40,000 served in Afghanistan under Leslie’s watch.
“They’re not at all happy with the way the Harper government’s been treating them,” he says.
“That plays a large reason why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
At war with ISIS
Leslie doesn’t hesitate when asked: Canada is at war with the Islamic State in Iraq.
“Absolutely. We’re dropping bombs on them. Our troops are guiding bombs onto targets,” he says.
“It’s not a formal state of war because ISIS – though they have domination over six million people, those poor terrorized displaced persons and those that are not strong enough to defend themselves – they’re not a nation state.”
But a form of war nonetheless.
“If you’re sending troops out, to deliberately engage targets, bringing in fighter bombers – that’s a combat activity,” he says.
It was billed by the government as an air combat mission, but since then, Chief of Defence Staff Tom Lawson has been forced to clarify that the situation on the ground has “evolved,” with Canadian troops spending time on the front lines.
And while they have shot back at ISIS militants a handful of times in “self-defence,” the military now says there have been more than a dozen instances in which troops have directed targets on the ground.
“The promise of the Conservative government was that the ground troops would not be engaged in combat until it came back to the House. And that’s the issue. I have no objection to troops carrying out all those activities that they’re charged to do either to protect themselves or those that are around them,” says Leslie.
“The issue is, were the Canadian public being deceived, yes or no? And the answer is yes.”
It’s a topic that evidently gets under Leslie’s skin. As co-chair of Trudeau’s international affairs council, he is tasked with helping his leader work out foreign affairs, veteran and defence issues.
He outlines, in detail, a four-point coherent strategy with the goal of empowering a nation’s own population to fight for themselves.
“Just going overseas and bombing does not work,” says Leslie. “It has never worked before, it’s not going to work in the future.”
Given the “binary” option presented by the Harper government, the Liberals chose to vote no on the mission.
“There’s no doubt that ISIS is evil. They’re working on the extreme elements of one of the world’s great religions, and they’ve perverted some of the messaging for their own selfish purposes.”
But just what the Liberals plan to do differently in the battle against ISIS remains unclear.
“Doing nothing is not a good option,” says Leslie, taking a bite of his mixed green salad with quinoa and Angus beef.
“What the Liberal position will be in the future, will depend on what the government articulates to the people of Canada as being either the extension or the modification of the current mission. And until we get that I really can’t say.”
When the matter comes back to Parliament in April, does he think the Liberals should support an extension?
“Good try. I’m going to keep my opinion to myself.”
‘You never think it’s going to happen to you’
In a way, he never really had a choice.
Son of a brigadier-general and an Air Force officer mother, Leslie’s great grandfather, grandfather, uncle and cousins all served in the Forces. Two of Leslie’s three children have served as well.
“The army is what we do,” says Leslie.
“There was never any discussion. It was always assumed I would go into the army, and it was always my assumption.”
Born in Ottawa, Leslie moved a handful of times as a child, from Petawawa, Ont. to Cyprus, before he ended up back in Ottawa for high school.
After graduating from the University of Ottawa, and studying in both London and Vienna, Leslie joined the armed forces.
He credits “great troops” and superiors with his rise in the ranks.
“Like everything in the armed forces, it’s a team. And if I have any skill it’s picking a good team,” says Leslie.
Three decades in the forces means he has also faced death. Serving in Croatia and the former Yugoslavia, Leslie was caught in a number of firefights.
“You never think it’s going to happen to you, and then you have confidence in the people around you,” he says.
After being shot at, there’s “a sense of relief, there’s an adrenaline surge, and you shrug it off and carry on,” he continues.
“The first five or ten times is usually quite disheartening. After that you just get used to it.”
Does he suffer from PTSD? “Not that I know of.”
“It’s certainly possible, and my heart goes out to those who have. We all learn to cope in some way, and I can’t explain why or why not in my case.”
Politics has been a bit of a learning curve.
In an unfortunate press conference at last February’s Liberal convention, Leslie gave journalists vague and confusing answers about whether he had negotiated with the Conservatives before his retirement.
He learned something that day: “Don’t engage in a philosophical dialogue in the middle of a media scrum,” he says, with a wry smile.
Leslie still hesitates to elaborate on the discussions, opting to talk only about details that have already been released.
“As is natural, the Conservatives at a variety of levels approached me for employment opportunities when I was at my 35-year point,” Leslie says now.
“One of them was to compete to be the Commissioner of the RCMP, but I did some research and I felt that they needed a police officer. So I didn’t allow my name to stand.”
He anticipates more “vicious” personal attacks from the Conservatives, leading up to this year’s federal election.
“That’s their modus operandi, kind of like the Tea Party in the States,” he says.
Which all points to one glaring question: why even go into politics?
For Leslie, it’s the tens of thousands of soldiers – just like the man at the bar – who served under his watch in Afghanistan.
“If the current government’s not going to take care of them, who is?” says Leslie.
“You never lose that sense of responsibility. Ever. Ever.”
The previous headline from this article has been corrected for accuracy.