May 4, 2012

Conrad Black returns home

PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — It's not just because we share a surname — though no known family connections — that I follow from a distance the life and times of Conrad Black (Lord Black of Crossharbour, actually).

Black, as readers may recall, once was one of the world's mightiest press barons who got his start in the print trade in Quebec's Eastern Townships as proprietor of the Sherbrooke Record.

At the peak of his empire, he was owner of some 400 newspapers in Canada, the United States and around the world, including such prestigious properties as the Jerusalem Post, Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom.

He also famously founded a second national newspaper in Canada, The National Post, to compete with The Globe and Mail, which he considered too bland, timid and liberal. The paper drained corporate resources, and eventually Black was forced to sell it to another media conglomerate.

The Post's woes marked the beginning of Black's epic fall from a pinnacle of wealth and power.

In 2007, a series of transactions involving Hollinger Inc., the principal holding company for Black's print assets, landed him before the courts in the United States. Without daring to attempt to explain the complex and contentious circumstances of the case against him, the upshot is Black, his empire in tatters, ended up in federal prison in Florida, where he has served off and on, through various appeals and the like, some 42 months behind bars.

Sources say his time in the slammer is expected to end today. The question remained whether Black, a convicted felon, would be allowed to return to Canada.

The wrinkle for Black is that he is no longer a Canadian citizen. In 2001, he renounced his citizenship in a spat with then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien. The British government of Tony Blair had offered Black a barony and a seat in the House of Lords. Chretien, citing a 1919 Parliamentary resolution shunning foreign titles for Canadians, barred Black from accepting the lordship.

Black, who held dual Canadian-British citizenship, canceled his national birthright to become a baron and developed a bitter grudge against Chretien for what he thought was spiteful retribution for criticism of the prime minister and his government.

But a few days ago, in what some critics call unseemly haste, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper granted Black a one-year temporary resident permit. Immigration Minister Jason Kenny explained that he had anticipated Black's return and asked his officials to examine his application.

According to one report, immigration officials grant some 10,000 such permits a year if there is a "compelling reason" to allow someone to enter Canada. Kenny, claiming confidentiality of information, declined to state what the reasons where.

Shortly after his anticipated return, Black may show up at a business book awards ceremony in Toronto, where he maintains a sumptuous residence, as a nominee for his tome "A Matter of Principle," which details, in whithering fashion, the circumstances of his legal ordeal.

The 67-year-old Black, were he not famous for his newspaper saga and court dramas, would by any measure be recognized as a world-class biographer and author.

Indeed, his volumes on Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("Champion of Freedom, 2003) and Richard Nixon ("A Life in Full," 2007), have earned him high praise. On the Canadian side, his biography of one of Quebec's most controversial premiers, Maurice Duplessis, stands as a definitive, albeit sympathetic, portrait of the man who coined the expression "maitre de chez nous" — masters in our own house.

It's unclear what Black's next move will be as a free man, although several civil suits he has launched against people who crossed him are pending. One is against several former Hollinger executives whom Black claims libeled him. A deal apparently has been struck to settle that matter, but other loose legal ends remain.

All indications are that Black is as defiant as ever, his legal wrangling having added volumes to an autobiography he penned in 1993, "A Life in Progress." How much Conrad Black has progressed in the 20 years since he wrote that book will be the subject of debate for some time to come.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at