Claiming Conrad Black as our own

Whether the politicians like it or not, we in the media have declared Conrad Black to be Canadian. Conrad Black is definitely and absolutely ours.

Whether the politicians like it or not, we in the media have declared Conrad Black to be Canadian. Love him or hate him, he is our own.

In the media, it actually doesn't take much. Nobel prize winners and movie stars only have to spend a few years of their lives here to qualify.

Every editor knows Alexander Graham Bell was Canadian. We dismiss absurd counterclaims by Scotland and the United States.

Elon Musk, of SpaceX and Tesla fame is ours, having attended Queen's University and pitched bales on his uncle's Saskatchewan farm. And don't try to tell me the acting Sutherland clan isn't ours, offspring or in-law of the Founder of Medicare.

Compared to all those, Black is definitely and absolutely ours.

'The skunk in the room'

Black's case, though stronger, is touchy, having generated tirades from the leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons. I mean, I don't like to alienate my friends on the left.

Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel Black leave federal court in Chicago, June 24, 2011. (M. Spencer Green/Associated Press)

But then my friends on the right are not exactly putting up welcome-home bunting either.

As one colleague pointed out this week, in public at least, the Harper government is treating Canada's prodigal son as if he were "the skunk in the room."

"It would be just as easy for us if Mr. Black were not allowed to come to Canada," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week. Officially, the PM is holding his nose while low-level bureaucrats from Citizenship and Immigration Canada do the dirty deed of letting Black into the country.

A media darling

But we in the media are not like that. While British tabloids turned their backs, the front pages of Canada's best papers and the headlines of our best newscasts blazed with stories.

Of course, there is one very selfish reason for the media to welcome Black back. We are in the business of generating news stories, and Black is like the Charlie Brown character Pig-Pen, who even when he leaves home spick-and-span, is in moments surrounded by a cloud of dust. In Black's case the cloud is news.\

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And no wonder. What an amazing person; what an amazing life.

And whether or not he regains a passport, Black will be remembered as a famous Canadian long after Stephen Harper has faded into a long grey line of semi-forgotten prime ministers. History prefers its actors spicy.

A hero and/or a rogue

To some a hero, to some a rogue, Black is like a character of fiction, who has adventures no normal person would ever think possible in a single life. And as in the best fiction, he is a leading character who is neither purely good nor purely bad. He is equivocal. His life is theatrical comedy and tragedy.

He started early. Parent's nightmare but schoolboy's dream, he stole the test questions and distributed them among his fellows, getting him kicked out of Canada's best known school-for-the-rich, Upper Canada College.

He has rubbed shoulders with British royalty and the American aristocratic plutocracy. But he also lived for years with America's most disenfranchised during his time in the U.S. federal prison system. If you can believe his own reports, he got along famously with high and low.

He has lived in cells. He has lived in palaces. He had tasted the finest wines and delicacies. He has survived on prison fare.

Starting out on a shoestring with a Quebec weekly, he worked his way up to controlling London's Daily Telegraph, one of the world's most influential newspapers. He became a lord, of all things, before it came crashing down. It all seems improbable.

British titles vs. Canadian citizenship

As to his lordship, that may be His Lordship's biggest problem with regaining Canadian citizenship. Canadian citizens may not receive British titles.

Conrad Black, right, stands in Britain's House of Lords. (CBC)

Do we create an exception to the rule for Lord Black of Crossharbour, or will we soon have Sir Mark as head of the Bank of Canada? Or instead of Sir Paul McCartney, will we have Sir Justin Bieber? I fear female Canadian voters might block that move as they could only aspire to become dames, which, in North American English sounds more like something Toronto's brothers Ford would call Margaret Atwood.

Titles are often a complication, especially on the way down. Conservative author Jeffrey Archer also took the great slide from House of Lords to common criminal. But Archer did it in a single country. Our Black strode the globe.

And when he was down, was he out? No way. Just when it looked as if he would crash and burn in his career as international media baron and captain of industry, he switched professions, coming out as a credible international historian with his well-reviewed tome on the life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Could the president of a Canadian bank do that?

Black is far from perfect. That is part of his charm.

Does he think there is a conspiracy against the rich? Possibly. But his time in prison will have reminded him about the greater conspiracy against the poor and uneducated.

Has he been a self-absorbed plutocrat? Surely. But more important, he has been a classic entrepreneurial risk-taker of a type identified by the Wharton School of Business.

The Wharton-type character doesn't think he is taking a risk, because he is supremely confident he is right. Even when the U.S. justice system, right up to the Supreme Court, disagrees.

Black vs. boring

Such mad confidence may be trouble on some occasions, but on others it is like a super power, to, for instance, create a Canadian national newspaper nearly from scratch. Or to create a global media empire, teetering on audacious piles of debt. I know I couldn't do it. I'm afraid of taking out a car loan.

Has Black been a champion of the Canadian right? Certainly. But he is far too complex, too Canadian, to represent a narrow right. He has friends from all along the spectrum. His ideas about penal reform, for example, may not please our current government.

Maybe the most important thing Black brings to us as Canadians is that he is not boring.

As a Canadian he tells the world, Canadians are not boring. He is an inspiration of single-minded determination. So long as you can avoid the step of going to jail.

In an email conversation between Black and CBC economics correspondent Mike Hornbrook, Black says he will continue to write, but "anything else I do will not be in the public domain."

That sounds uncharacteristic. It sounds like Black is going to lay low, keep his head down. We in the media hope not.