02/20/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 04/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Andrew Leslie Following Political Path Set By His Past


Retired general Andrew Leslie might have expected the verbal jostling that comes with the rough and tumble of politics — after all, both of his grandfathers served as Liberal defence ministers.

Running for the Liberal nomination in Ottawa-Orleans is an echo of his grandfathers' political efforts, but only one of many ways in which Leslie's life has mirrored his father's and his grandfathers' lives.

His maternal grandfather, Brooke Claxton, was defence minister when Canada joined NATO, the international organization that would later take charge of the war in Afghanistan, and under which Leslie served as deputy commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in 2003. 

David Bercuson, who first met Leslie in the 1990s when Leslie was a colonel at CFB Edmonton, says duty and history are "a huge part" of what drives the retired general.

There's "a very, very strong tradition in the family and I know that he’s felt that most of his life," said Bercuson, a military historian who wrote a biography of Claxton.

Lost his 'political virginity'

Leslie may have been prepared for the scrutiny that began last weekend with Conservative MPs questioning his 2012 moving expenses, which totalled $72,225.86 — the bulk of which was likely realtor fees. Leslie moved a couple of blocks under a program that sees the government cover the costs of a final move for members of the Canadian Forces when they leave the military.

Leslie's moving expenses were the subject of two statements by Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, who now occupies a position once held by both Claxton and Andrew McNaughton, his paternal grandfather. Leslie's father changed the family name from McNaughton in order to comply with the terms of an inheritance.

Leslie followed his grandfather and father as an artillery officer in the military. His daughter, who served in Afghanistan, makes it an even four generations of artillery officers to come out of the family.

In a statement over the weekend, Leslie referred to being "shot at by real bullets" and said he could take the "partisan attacks."

An old friend and former colleague of Leslie's says he's learning how to step into the metaphorical war zone from the literal one. There's no doubt, he says, that Leslie lost his "political virginity" last weekend.

"I can't put it any other subtle way. I don't think we expected it to be that vicious and to be that targeted," the friend said.

Experience in combat

Leslie served in Cyprus and Croatia, when it was part of the former Yugoslavia, as well as Afghanistan. Those experiences make it harder to rattle him, the friend said.

"You're not going to fuss this guy in a heated sort of exchange. Because his temperament and his makeup, because he's been in such a violent part of the world ... Andy's been in that environment, and it's a tough place to be, and it changes you."

​Both of Leslie's grandfathers served in the First World War. McNaughton was wounded twice, but stayed in the army until 1944 to lead the Canadian Corps and the 1st Canadian Army in the Second World War.

McNaughton became known for his work as a counter-battery officer, according to the National Artillery Museum, for "his work in devising innovative techniques," new equipment and using aircraft to locate enemy guns.

The museum says McNaughton led one "near-perfect barrage" using smoke and counterfire, "with particular care taken to reduce damage to civilian life and property," that remains "a classic example of the gunners’ art."

In 1944, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King named McNaughton the minister of national defence, though he hadn't won an election. But McNaughton lasted only nine months, resigning after losing two election races, according to former senator Eugene Forsey's guide How Canadians govern themselves.

Mackenzie King still found several appointments for McNaughton, including two years in Canada's delegation to the United Nations.

Father, grandfathers ran for Liberals

Leslie's father also ran for the Liberals and lost in Parry Sound-Muskoka in 1974.

Leslie is likely hoping for better luck when he seeks the Liberal Party nomination in Ottawa-Orleans. The riding is currently held by Conservative MP Royal Galipeau.

He may hope to mirror his other grandfather's success in political life. Claxton won four elections starting in 1940 and represented the Quebec riding of St. Lawrence-St. George. He was also appointed by Mackenzie King to be defence minister and held the position from December 1946 until June 1954, when he left elected office to become the Canadian vice-president of Metropolitan Insurance.

Leslie became head of the army in 2006, leading it as the military hit the most grinding part of the war in Afghanistan. Though he was rumoured to be up for the chief of defence staff role, the top Canadian Forces job, it went to Walt Natynczyk, and Leslie was named head of transformation. He cautioned against cutting the procurement budget, and recommended cutting the number of reservists in half, reducing the number of contractors and consultants, and moving or cutting 3,500 civil servants. He retired from the military in 2011 and took a job with CGI Group.

Leslie will make his first major appearance as a Liberal hopeful this weekend when he speaks at the party's convention in Montreal.

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