Conrad Black, the controversial convicted felon and former newspaper publisher, won the coveted Bob Edwards Award Thursday night.

Calgary’s Public Library Foundation handed out the award, which is given to provocative people with strong viewpoints in honour of its namesake — a local turn-of-the-century newspaper publisher named Bob Edwards.

Last year’s award went to CBC comedian and satirist Mary Walsh after those on the foundation’s board said it was time to appeal to a different group of people.

“I think it’s appropriate to have somebody else who will speak to a different part of the audience and I think it’s important to honour all areas of journalism,” said Doreen Richards, a board member of the Public Library Foundation.

Bob Edwards was publisher of the Calgary Eye Opener, a weekly newspaper first published in 1902.

The newspaper became the namesake for the CBC Calgary radio show, the Calgary Eyeopener.

He was known as a hard-drinking, straight-shooter whose paper held power over governments and national railway companies alike — and that's why some at the award gala say Black deserved to win.

"He turned journalism on its head in Canada, by far for the better," said attendee Alan Crooks. "We have a more open and vocal journalistic market. We have competition from the national print and how many people can say they launched and succeeded in a national newspaper creation?"

For many in the journalism industry, news that Black was receiving the award came as a shock.

Black at heart of bitter strike

Relations between the former media mogul and journalists have long been tense.

Black was at the heart of a bitter and, at times, violent strike by more than 200 newspaper workers in 2000.

"It was a terrible experience for all concerned," said Terry Field, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University. "Arguably completely unnecessary in terms of maintaining the newspaper and maintaining a good workplace."

The strike lasted almost 200 days and centred around a union seniority clause.

Black's company, Hollinger Inc., owned the Calgary Herald as part of an acquisition deal made when it bought Southam Newspapers. 

The company said the seniority clause would force it to keep on "deadwood" staff, while reporters and other newspaper employees felt the real issue was to ensure no more papers became unionized.

At the time, newspaper staff were working to get a first collective agreement.

They ultimately gave up their demand for seniority protection.