Black Friday for Mr. Black .. now what about the good old family compact in Canada?

Jul 13th, 2007 | By | Category: Key Current Issues

Friday, July 13, 2007 turns out an unlucky day for the fallen media baron Conrad Black, who used to be a Canadian citizen but gave that up to become a British lord. A US jury in Chicago has finally found him guilty on four of 13 white-collar-crime charges. That might sound not too bad, all things considered. But Mr. Black is for certain looking at jail time – from as little as two to six years on one of many guesses haunting the (Canadian) mass media right now, to as much as 10 to 15 (or more?) and even, in theory, “up to 35 years.” The exact details of Mr. Black’s own immediate fate will still not be known for a while yet. The all-important sentencing will not take place until November 30. But the broader question that looms in many minds in the country of his birth is what does it all mean for Canada? Does it mean, e.g., that the good old Canadian boys’ club once known as the “family compact,” which Conrad Black probably does still personify today, as much as or better than anyone else, is finally dead too? (And if so, some will no doubt still ask, is that really such a good thing?)

Blowin’ in the wind …

Before lurching into a few dangerously premature thoughts on such rude questions, it should be clarified that the question of Mr. Black’s circumstances between now and his sentencing hearing several months hence has finally been put off until next Thursday, July 19. There is still a chance that he will not be going to jail until late this year. As his Toronto lawyer Eddie Greenspan has made clear to the Canadian TV audience, Mr. Black will be appealing even his current comparatively modest convictions with great vigour. And it is apparently still conceivable that he may not be going to jail until all his legal appeals conclude, a few years hence.

Still, it seems clear enough that neither Conrad Black himself nor many of his continuing band of local boys’ club supporters quite expected that he actually would be facing some serious jail time at the end of his great ordeal before the court in Chicago. And as the CTV Newsnet cable channel explained this evening, the reaction to the news on the streets of the Canadian city where he currently resides was far from gloomy.

There have been some reports in the Canadian media over the past year or so about a new “Citizen Black.” The plainest truth, however, is that the authentic depths of Canadian populism (which has traditionally opposed all later survivals of the original ancient family compact that sprang up in the far north immediately after the late 18th century American Revolution) has welcomed the comeuppance of Lord Conrad.

As one clearly thoughtful and well-informed man on street interviewed by CTV explained, the only problem with the Chicago jury’s verdict was that it took a court in the United States to do the right thing. The surviving old boys’ club in Canada would never have convicted Conrad of anything – even if he did give up his Canadian citizenship to become a British lord.

But does the verdict nonetheless mean that the urgings of the old boys’ club are about to fall from their too-long accustomed seat of privilege in Canada too? Commenting on CTV Newsnet this afternoon Paula Todd suggested that it does indeed mean something more or less like this.

No one on CTV was talking about the issue in quite such stark and no doubt all too rude terms of course. (Only people on the street – or the internets – are allowed to do that.) But Ms. Todd performed very well this afternoon, and showed that as a trained lawyer as well as a journalist she does have a leg up in such cases. She seemed clearly impressed by the force of the verdict that finally had come down upon Mr. Black’s head. And she predicted that Canadian courts would increasingly be directing more attention to such cases of white-collar crime than they have in the past. Canada will finally be catching up here, just as it has in class actions, e.g. (once also thought a little too rude for the better-bred good manners of Canadian law).

Regional and other nuances don’t change the ultimate point?

Looking at the somewhat broader picture, some will rightly enough say, no doubt, that the particular old Canadian boys’ club / family compact which Conrad Black does still personify (at its social, political, and intellectual heights even?) is still very much a creature of the old central Canadian establishment in Ontario and Quebec.

Mr. Black made his career in Toronto and Montreal, and then graduated to London (and New York and Palm Beach). The Vancouver representative of the business (also especially responsible for its US interests) was David Radler. And, by making a deal with Patrick Fitzgerald’s Chicago prosecutors, Mr. Radler has probably proved himself a little smarter than Mr. Black – as hard as that may be for some to accept.

Almost as if to eerily echo this regionalist sub-theme, the Friday, July 13 issue of the Toronto Star ran a column by its star Ottawa correspondent Chantal Hebert, intriguingly headlined “Ontario now taking a back seat in the federation.” And just two days ago, on the evening of Wednesday, July 11, Prime Minister Stephen Harper “told 700 Tory supporters at a BBQ in Edmonton …. that despite the occasional squabbling between governments,’ these are good times to be Canadian.” His “government has introduced a bill that would give Alberta five extra seats in the Commons to reflect its growing population.” And: “A handful of the Tories jumped to their feet as Harper said he wants to make it impossible for the Liberals and the NDP to ever wage another campaign against the West.'”

One problem here is that Conrad Black, insofar as he deigns to take some interest in Canadian politics, is certainly no supporter of “the Liberals and the NDP.” The original ancient family compact was Tory, through and through. What survives of the old Canadian establishment today has its regional variations in all parts of the country.

The United States today has its own version of a family compact. The current President of the great republic is undoubtedly part of it – as is much of the present oil industry in both Texas and Alberta (to say nothing of such places as Saudi Arabia). Another thoughtful and well-informed young man on CTV Newsnet this evening – and this time on Bay Street in the heart of the Toronto financial district – summed up another piece of cynical insider wisdom. Mr. Black had taken some money for himself that properly belonged to shareholders. He should not have done it. But lots of other corporate managers today do it. He was just the one who got caught.

Yet you could go on and on about such things forever. What about the central questions in the very end? Does Conrad Black’s conviction on four of 13 charges on Friday, July 13 mean that the good old Canadian boys’ club once known as the family compact, which he probably does still personify today, is finally dead? And if so, is that really such a good thing? From where we sit in this space, when everything else is said and done (and all conceivable nuances about writing good books are allowed for), the answers are already clear enough. In the first place, we certainly hope so. In the second, yes indeed! And if this part of things finally does all come true, Mr. Black really will have at last done something high and noble for the land of his birth.

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