Black and Harper .. the old Canada and the new Canada .. or just the same old Canada?

Mar 4th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Try reading Patricia Best’s Globe and Mail report, “My dinner with Conrad” (at “the midtown Toronto restaurant Scaramouche”), while watching CBC TV on the latest Stephen Harper adventures in Ottawa. And you may suddenly think that the thickening Harper Conservative plot in Canada and the “Conrad Black Movement” could be somehow connected. In one sense, they are opposing trends. (See, e.g. the recent London Times obituary on the “legacy of monarchy and elitism in Canada compared to the revolutionary background and egalitarianism in the US.”) But Mr. Harper and Mr. Black also seem to be drinking some of the same local Kool-Aid lately. So … if Stephen Harper finally does win a Conservative majority government in Canada, is Conrad Black going to walk? Or is he still “on my way to the prison cell where I belong” in the USA?

Ms. Best’s dinner with Conrad

For most of us (and that certainly includes me) just where you’re at on Conrad Black depends on the last thing you read about him. If it happens to be the London Review of Books issue of 14 December 2006, you may still think that the “story of the Blacks ought to be comic … Somehow, though, comedy is not the dominant note … The arc of Black’s story … is close to tragic, or it would be, if Black wasn’t quite such a bully and blowhard …

“It’s startling to see just how little Black, publisher of some of the most stridently pro-capitalist newspapers in the world, seemed to understand capitalism. The whole point of taking Hollinger public, he said, was because it enabled him to make relatively cheap use of other people’s capital’. No. The people who buy the shares are the people who own the company; they regard the company’s money as their money, for the good reason that, actually, it is.”

Some two and a half months later, Patricia Best’s account of her dinner with “Lord Black,” on “a snowy night” in Toronto is coming from another universe. If you reach it via‘s in-depth section on Conrad Black (or at least if you did on the evening of 1 March 2007), you will see a drawing of the restaurant that captures the local mood.

As Ms. Best notes about her dinner companion: “Where once his social life revolved around events in London and New York and Palm Beach, for the past two years it has largely been in Toronto. A veritable house arrest.”


10 Toronto Street Revisited

In fact Conrad Black was born into the old British North American business elite in Montreal. But he spent much of his youth in Toronto. Then he managed to buy much of the Argus Corporation from Bud McDougald’s widow in the late 1970s. And it was headquartered at 10 Toronto Street – originally erected as the Seventh Toronto Post Office in the early 1850s.

Among those who frequent such places as the Scaramouche restaurant nowadays – or “the cachet-heavy dinner series held in Toronto every winter” of which “Lord Black” has at least lately been “a regular attendee and ardent supporter” – the recent veritable house arrest of Conrad Black and his wife Barbara Amiel (“manifestly a troubled and unhappy woman” according to the London Review of Books) has apparently added fresh zest to the social life of the “old-guard Establishment” and its hangers-on, in present-day Canada’s largest metropolis.

Ms. Best’s story about the Blacks, as they have struggled bravely to regroup in Toronto over the past two years, sometimes reads like a blend of Stephen Leacock’s Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich and the later writings of the Globe and Mail society gossip reporter of the 1960s and 1970s, Zena Cherry. But like David Frum, Margaret Wente, and other Toronto-related figures lately, she also seems to be telling us that, in the end and as usual, you do have to hand it to Conrad Black (the London Review of Books and its ilk notwithstanding).

He may be a “Celebrity Accused,” who starting this Wednesday, March 14 (and going on for about the next three months) “will sit in a Chicago courtroom to confront the institutional wrath of the US Department of Justice and to defend himself against charges of fraud, racketeering and money laundering. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. But he is … stimulated at the prospect of having to fight for his life.” And: “He looks better than ever … Younger seeming and certainly handsome. He is energetic, engaged, relaxed. He grins, he charms, he appears genuinely happy – an extraordinary thing for a man in his position.”

“Could Conrad really walk? Yes, he could.”

The American expatriate in Toronto, Margaret Wente, was sketching a similar story in the Globe and Mail, just a week or so ago: “Mr. Black hasn’t lost his unique way with words. He’s never looked better in his life. And he’s not at all shy about his legal troubles. If you are too discreet to bring up the subject of next month’s trial, then he will. He will tell you that he is impatient to demolish, pulverize, crush his enemies … Why is this man so confident? Is he deluded? … Or could Conrad really walk? Yes, he could. If you are among the numerous Canadians who long to see him dressed in prison stripes, you may be cruelly disappointed.”

As usual on the local scene, there are many ironies in all this. And one of them of course turns around how the current “old-guard Establishment” of anglophone Central Canada has in his hour of greatest need finally welcomed back its prodigal son (who had earlier abandoned his Canadian citizenship so he could become Lord Black of Crossharbour in the United Kingdom, on an ancient Canadian business model).

And his paramour too – once a Toronto figure in her own right. Barbara Amiel, a New York society gossip writer reported a while back, “no longer has her column at the Telegraph” in London. But for some time now she has gone back to writing a column for Maclean’s in Toronto, just like in the good old days, when we were all so much younger.

(And as the London Sunday Times explained this past fall: “With her past as a sexual adventuress in Canada, which she had written about frankly, there was no woman in London who understood men better than Amiel. My dears,’ she told a group of women after an exercise class, apart from Anatole France and Albert Schweitzer, there is no man interested in anything but sex.'”)


Stephen Harper’s Toronto childhood … and the move out West

Stephen Harper of course comes from a quite different background. He did grow up in Toronto too – but in the resolutely middle-class suburbs of Leaside and Etobicoke. His father was employed by a local company that could trace its roots back to the very first Canadian oil wells in Petrolia, in Southwestern Ontario, in the middle of the 19th century. (Conrad Black’s father was “George Montegu Black, Jr. … president of Canadian Breweries … the world’s largest international brewing conglomerate in the 1950s.”)

Stephen Harper attended the tax-funded Richview Collegiate Institute in Etobicoke, and not the venerable old-guard-Establishment charm school at Upper Canada College, from which the youthful Conrad Black was “expelled … for stealing and selling exam papers.” Similarly, after finally landing at a private school called “Thornton Hall in Toronto, designed to nurture and correct difficult but brilliant wealthy students,” Conrad Black “managed to graduate with apparently mediocre grades in 1962.”

Stephen Harper, on the other hand, left Richview Collegiate in 1978, as “the top student of his graduating year with a 95.7% average.” He then “briefly studied at the University of Toronto before travelling to Edmonton, where he found employment in the oil and gas industry as a computer programmer in his early twenties. He later attended the University of Calgary, receiving a Master’s degree in economics.”

For the youthful Mr. Harper the move west to the big new Canadian oil wells in Alberta, you might guess, must have reflected some kind of deep middle-class populist urge for liberation from the ancient folkways of various old-guard Establishment blowhard bullies back east. (It also apparently pushed his politics in new directions: at his tax-funded Toronto high school he had been a noted member of the Young Liberal Club.)

Isn’t Conrad Black’s Central Canadian capitalism one thing Western Canadian populism is struggling against?

Mr. Harper may never have become a real “Western Canadian populist” – not like Preston Manning, who grew up in Alberta (and had a father who was premier of the province for a quarter of a century, in another grand old Canadian tradition of political longevity, east and west). But Stephen Harper has recently been called a “libertarian intellectual.” And Western Canadian populism (and even some vaguely surviving inklings of its antecedents back east, as long ago as the failed Rebellions of 183738 in what are now Ontario and Quebec) has played some kind of important role in bringing him to where he is today – at the head of a quite razor-thin minority government in Ottawa, but maybe still poised for somewhat greater things.

Similarly, it is wrong to say (as certain varieties of eastern old-guard Establishment spin still do, now as in the past) that Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party, with its most vital heart in Alberta, wants to “Americanize” Canada.

But it does seem that the “new Canada,” whose aspirations Mr. Harper purports to embody and champion in his very best moments, wants to quietly leave the dying embers of the old “legacy of monarchy and elitism” behind. At least one of its essential passions is to finally and decisively embrace the North American “revolutionary background and egalitarianism,” that has been growing ever since the 1820s in Canada too (and may in some ways even be stronger in Canada today than in the USA?).

And, not to put too fine a point on it, this new Canada includes many of what Margaret Wente calls “the numerous Canadians who long to see” Conrad Black “dressed in prison stripes.” Mr. Black’s key violation of community values is just that he has throughout his public career regularly shown his vast contempt for the essential egalitarianism of the North American middle classes in Canada (in both English and French) – and of the increasingly Americanized middle classes in many other places too.

As nowadays even the London Review of Books can aptly explain, Mr. Black has not understood that the “people who buy the shares are the people who own the company.” He (along with his current wife) has not thought that the ordinary rules which apply to everyone else also apply to him – (and perhaps to a few of his peers as well, in and out of the British House of Lords).

Canada, where the old legacy of monarchy and elitism still does survive more than it should, does not yet have quite the kind of legal regime that will dare to enforce even some degree of serious egalitarianism of rules and formal opportunities, every now and then. In the case of Conrad Black, partisans of the new Canada can at least be glad that the United States does.

So is the legacy of monarchy and elitism and Conrad Black’s  capitalism finally coming to an end in Canada … or not?

And yet … Nothing in life these days (or any days?) is quite that simple. (And certainly not in what Mr. Harper himself has called the “unique history and eclectic identity” of Canada, ever.) To create the new Conservative Party of Canada that, against all odds and prior predictions, Stephen Harper has now actually led to the beginnings of power in Ottawa, the (right-wing) Western Canadian populists have had to lie down next to the old Tories back east.

Thus the new Harper Conservatives are members of the only federal political party in Canada today that includes a pledge of continuing loyalty to the British monarchy in its constitution. On a trip back to the old mother country this past summer Prime Minister Harper had some laudatory things to say about the legacies of the now fallen British empire in Canada.

And then Prime Minmister Harper’s quiet new friendship with Australia’s resolutely right-wing prime minister (and Bush-Cheney ally), John Howard, has reflected a broader interest in reorienting Canadian foreign policy around Conrad Black’s conception of an “Anglosphere” – i.e., the US, UK, Australia, and so forth, as the primary focus of Canadian political attachment in an increasingly troubled global village.

(To be fair to Mr. Harper, one lingering question about the Anglosphere is does it also include such modern English-speaking democracies as India and South Africa? And as his current interest in the Canadian Air India disaster of the mid 1980s suggests, he has felt obliged to hint that it does. Then for Canada of course there is the question of la Francophonie as well. And it is hard to deny that Mr. Harper has been making some at any rate calculated “Quebecois nation” gestures in this direction too. And then there is NAFTA and Mexico – which all loyal Canadian friends and allies of Washington still support and try to nurture, for Canada’s own good reasons – as in better to face the USA with Mexico than all alone, etc.)

Similarly, Conrad Black no longer owns the experimental rigorously conservative Canadian newspaper he started at the height of his former glory within the Anglosphere, at The National Post. But even now it remains in business, headquartered in Toronto and still haunted by his ghost – and still (after a brief period of apostasy) the most ardent ultimate supporter of Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives, in the heartland of the old-guard Establishment of Central Canada.

According to recent reports from John Ibbitson at the Globe and Mail, conquering “the Central Canadian establishment” for the new West and the new Canada is still Stephen Harper’s key objective. And: “There is nothing, nothing Mr. Harper won’t do to win … He knows, for example, that the Central Canadian establishment can be defeated, if its business component can be hived off … Big business [in Toronto as elsewhere] supports Stephen Harper on cutting taxes and fighting Kyoto … The Liberals have the judges, the academics, the journalists, the artists, the social activists. The Conservatives have Bay Street and what used to be called the little guy.”

And yet again, some will say, nothing is quite so simple. Bay Street in Toronto is still somewhat haunted by Conrad Black’s continuing attachment to the old local traditions of “monarchy and elitism” writ at their largest. And many who qualify as Mr. Ibittson’s “what used to be called the little guy,” out in the wider Southern Ontario and the Greater Toronto Area beyond the old financial district and the trendy inner city (to say nothing of Canada, coast to coast to coast), are also among Margaret Wente’s “numerous Canadians who long to see” Lord Black of Crossharbour “dressed in prison stripes.”

As he awaits the start of his trial for “fraud, racketeering and money laundering” in Chicago, Mr. Black seems to have begun to appreciate that it has been in part his longstanding contempt for the many non-institutional little-guy local investors, who, one way or another, just buy and sell small parcels of stocks and bonds when they can afford it, that has got him into trouble. Rumour has it that he has applied to get his old humble Canadian citizenship reinstated. As Ms. Best explained after her dinner at the Scaramouche restaurant: “There is no denying” that his current legal troubles have “touched a nerve with many people completely unassociated with Conrad Black. I receive e-mails every day from people expressing their support for me,’ he tells me, adding in an e-mail later, The Conrad Black Movement is growing and ramifying exponentially.'”

Yet it also seems a likely enough guess that most of those in the growing Conrad Black Movement (assuming they are, say, perhaps even half as numerous as Mr. Black himself implies) are not also motivated by anything remotely like Stephen Harper’s willful quest to conquer the Central Canadian establishment and cut it down to its proper size at last, in the interest of the wider new Canada of the 21st century.

Instead, they see Lord Black of Crossharbour’s current brave struggles as a sad but noble defence of the high old-guard Establishment traditions, and the proper old British North American values of monarchy and elitism that have served Canada so well – against the rising depredations of the unwashed democratic barbarians from Western Canada and the outer suburbs of the GTA.

Historically, moreover, the real federal political home of crypto-republican North American populism and egalitarianism in the true north has been the Liberal Party of Canada. The future of the federal Liberals over the next while may even somehow depend on their interest in and ability to rediscover their noble democratic past. (At least some of them might start, e.g., by re-reading Frank Underhill’s book of 1961, In Search of Canadian Liberalism.)

The future of Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, on the other hand, may depend on Mr. Harper’s ability to rein in whatever too strong attractions he may feel, as an old Toronto boy himself, to the many undoubted charms and talents of Conrad Black. (Especially if Mr. Black does finally wind up walking from his upcoming trial in Chicago, off to the house in Palm Beach with Barbara Amiel, happily ever after. And, not to put too fine a point on it again, remember what Conrad’s father told him on his death-bed: “Life is hell … Most people are bastards, and everything is bullshit.” What kind of vision is that for the new “Canadian people,” who were alluded to four times – as opposed to only once for the Queen – in the present Harper minority government’s first Throne Speech, back on April 4, 2006?)

See counterweights on the sentencing of Conrad Black for his crimes, December 2007: AVE ATQUE VALUE MR. BLACK

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