Whether his job was peacekeeping in Cyprus or Cobble Hill, Larry Gollner has earned respect for his inspired leadership. Retired from army life since 1993, Gollner hasn’t shaken the military discipline, still rising early to work for the veterans’ cause. “I was a soldier before I was an officer, and I learned that an officer’s responsibility is to look after a soldier,” said the retired brigadier-general. “Just because I happen to be out of the army doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten that.”
Gollner, 77, recently received a special commendation from Minister of Veteran’s Affairs Kent Hehr for his advocacy. Unhappy with the way returning veterans were treated, he played a big part in Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association (CPVA), pushing the federal government to create a veterans’ ombudsman and veteran’s bill of rights. He bluntly pointed out that federal prisoners had an ombudsman, and so why shouldn’t veterans who had served their country have one as well? The role was created in 2007.
Now he’s continuing the cause of the Afghanistan veteran as president of the Greater Victoria Afghanistan Memorial Project, a granite monument to the 40,000 Canadians who served in the country’s longest military engagement (2001-2014). As patron of the CPVA, he visited troops in Afghanistan, and saw the significant need for psychiatric treatment and group therapy for some of the emotional traumas. He has gone to court numerous times for individual veterans to force the government to follow its own legislation on pensions and disability issues.
The commendation is a fitting tribute to a man who keeps fighting for rights. Contrary to expectations that he would join the family construction business in Vancouver, Gollner joined the army in 1956 as an ordinary soldier with the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI). But he realized that he liked army life and it liked him. By the time he was 21, he was a commissioned officer, and by 1976 he was commander of the regiment. After that his career was a whirl of assignments: two tours with NATO in Germany, an exchange to Britain, studies at National Defence College. His wife, Christine, had each of their three children in a different country: one in Germany, one in the U.K. and one in Canada. His later roles included chair of the NATO infantry panel; commanding officer of United Nations Sector 4 in Nicosia, Cyprus; chief of staff Pacific area; and finally, commander – northern region.
His award won’t be a surprise to his former neighbours in Cobble Hill – the Gollners now live in Oak Bay in a house filled with their bold paintings. Gollner, who still calls the plans “nefarious,” played a commanding role in the fight against the Eco Depot, a waste transfer station planned by the CVRD on agricultural land on Cameron-Taggart Road. When he found out about the decision, made in secret without any consultation, he wrote to the provincial ombudsman hoping to start an investigation into the irregularities. Meanwhile the neighbours conscripted him as leader, and soon his living room became the HQ for the Cobble Hill uprising. “We had 53 meetings at our house,” says Christine.
“He brought us leadership with class. He taught us always to take the high road,” said fellow activist Cliff Evans. “He kept us going even though there was infighting.” Evans said when he suggested getting rid of one outspoken member, Gollner told him they could learn from those with dissenting opinions more than a room full of “yes” people.
Residents hammered away at the obvious inconsistencies between the zoning and the actions, and forced the CVRD to hold a referendum as part of the municipal elections in Nov. 2011. The people won that vote as well as the legal battle a year later.
The whole struggle against the regional district was a reminder of participatory democracy, says Gollner who likes to joke about his army days, “We wore a uniform to defend democracy, but that doesn’t mean we practiced it.” Still, he is the kind of benevolent commander most people would happily follow.