Posted by: Rob | July 20, 2010

Conrad Black Granted Bail

Well, what do you know?  Conrad Black was granted bail yesterday as he continues his quest to have all the convictions against him overturned.  There’s not much sympathy for white collar criminals these days, whether alleged, perceived or guilty, and I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a big Conrad Black fan, but there is something about his – and I paraphrase – “Fuck all of you naysayers” panache that I find compelling.

Admittedly, much of my goodwill toward Conrad is rooted in the text of a speech he gave at a Fraser Institute luncheon back in November of 2001 (a text of the complete speech is available for download).  At the time, Black had recently renounced his Canadian citizenship to accept a British peerage (he is now known as Lord Black of Crossharbour).  He had been blocked from this, apparently, by the wily interventions of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.  Black does comment on this matter in the speech.

In the speech – loosely titled “Reflections of an ex-citizen” –  Black spoke rather bluntly, as he is wont to do, about the state of various affairs in Canada, touching upon such things as Canada’s identity, its place in the world and reasons for its dearth of leaders.  Although the speech has stuck with me for going on a decade now, at the time I read it I was still actively pursuing a career move that would move us back to the United States on a more permanent basis.  That dream, however, was starting to erode as the US began to subtly – and not-so-subtly – change  following the events of September 11, 2001.  Following are some of my favourite passages from Black’s reflections; any emphasis on text is mine.

On Canada’s best and brightest, many of whom choose to leave our country:

From the age of 8, a regrettably long time ago now, when I first saw New York and London, in both of which cities I am a homeowner now, I dreamt of a Canada where the most talented and ambitious people would not feel irresistibly drawn to those and other great foreign cities.

In 200 years more than 4 million Canadians have emigrated to the United States, including Alexander Graham Bell, James J. Hill, Saul Bellow, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jack Kent Cooke and many of Hollywood’s greatest stars, such as pre-war America’s designated sweetheart, Mary Pickford. If they had remained here, Canada’s population would be twice as large and more than twice as productive as it is today. We have peace, order, and what most Canadians profess to accept as tolerably good government. If Canadians were a little livelier, freer and happier, fewer Canadians would look or move to the United States and elsewhere in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

The movement of talented Canadians to the United States has grown steadily to between 75,000 and 100,000 per year. The head of the Canadian government says they will be replaced by Haitian taxi drivers. They will not. A country needs good taxi drivers and many of them will be upwardly mobile but it also needs leaders in every field. Too many of Canada’s leaders live in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles and London, which is one of the main reasons why the leaders in Ottawa and Toronto and elsewhere tend to be inadequate.

I thought, and still believe that if the social safety net were rolled back from being the hammock Trudeau made of it to buy votes from the separatists in Quebec and distinguish Canada from the United States, many of those who have left this country, most of them reluctantly, but lured by greater opportunity, lower taxes, and a less envious social ambiance, could be attracted back. In any case, the drain could be stopped or drastically reduced and Canada’s talent pool would rise.

On Canada, it’s culture and how Canadians see themselves:

I think most English-speaking Canadians and a large number of French-speaking Canadians are pleased to be Canadian. Most regret, as I do, that Canada is not better recognized in the world and did not produce more people whose talent was recognized internationally. Most Canadians became fatigued as well as embarrassed by the intractability of constitutional problems. The fact that 90% of Canada’s high culture and 80% of its popular culture come from elsewhere, mainly the United States, created serious ambivalences.

Being a gentler and less vulgar but less creative and confident country than the United States while being less formal and often more enterprising than the British in my judgement never really wholly satisfied the ambitions of citizenship of most Canadians. Defining Canadians in subtle terms of what they are not is not a compelling rallying cry.

Let us, at least between ourselves, face facts. Canada is, compared to other G-7 countries, a plain vanilla place or, to paraphrase our distinguished travel writer, Jan Morris, “a good second prize in the Lottario of life”. The status of being good but not great afflicts French as much as English Canada. I know of few parts of the world more terminally self-absorbed than Quebec, but this interest in Quebec is shared by virtually no foreigners. Interest in Canada is like Canadian Art; it has no market outside the country. Believe me, I’ve tried. If pressed, a few Frenchmen will admit to a passing Châteaubriand interest in “messieurs les sauvages” and some Englishmen will express solidarity. Americans, with the best motives, don’t regard Canada as foreign.

Canadians are rightly heartened by those United Nations surveys that show Canada to be one of the world’s most agreeable countries for the average person. But most Canadians in my experience are frustrated by the country’s lack of recognition as a significant nationality compared to the Americans or the principal countries of Europe. And almost all practising Canadians, including me when I was one, felt the urge to help lift the country that final rung we were told in school we were pre-destined to climb, to the summit of national achievement.

On Canadian competitiveness, especially with the U.S. (note that these remarks are under the paradigm of a devalued Canadian currency which, nowadays, flirts more frequently with parity with the US dollar.), and its economic ties to the U.S.:

From the Diefenbaker regime on, Canada has generally accorded higher social benefits to virtually all categories of employees than did the United States. Our productivity levels steadily lagged those of the U.S., the wage and security components of our industrial cost structure were higher than the American and the result was that in the last 45 years Canadians maintained their ability to export to the United States, upon which 87% of Canada’s foreign trade and 43% of its Gross National Product now depend, by reducing the comparative value of the Canadian dollar by over 40%. Thus Canada’s standard of living, compared to that of the United States, factoring in tax reductions and productivity increases in the U.S., has declined by almost 40%. It is 30 years since Pierre Trudeau set out to reduce the U.S. percentage of Canadian foreign trade with spectacularly unsuccessful results. Canada is now more integrated into the U.S. economy than California is. In addition to moving resources to people we defined ourselves as a nationality through social programs, another original concept that is unlikely to find many emulators. I believed and often wrote, that these policies would lead to a painful day of social and fiscal reckoning, that they encouraged underachievement, the spirit of envy and that they dampened individualism. I have not seen any reason to alter that opinion.

I supported free trade in the great debates of nearly fifteen years ago not because I thought it would greatly expand trade prospects but because I hoped Canadians would realize that they could compete successfully with the United States without recourse to protectionism. And I hoped that Canada could then be less self-conscious, less defensive, in its relationship with that country than it often has been.

I always dissented from those who claimed Canada was more generous or humane than the United States because it is more socialistic. But I am one of those who believe Canadians can be fully competitive, as employees and as executives, as farmers and as policy-makers, with that country. This is no small achievement. Whether the bedraggled Canadian left likes it or not, the United States is by far the most successful and powerful country in the history of the world. To keep pace with it is a challenging yardstick and Canada’s media should have done a more efficient job than they have of informing Canadians of their exemplary competitive performance. Even though too much of it is based on currency devaluation. Instead Canadian media have tended to focus excessively on perceived American shortcomings.

On Canada’s identity and its destiny:

I believed Canada could evolve to a more confident, spontaneous, individualistic, enterprising and unenvious society than it had been by its own methods, not imitative ones. With only 11% of the U.S. population and a less temperate climate, Canada had a less complicated sociology. I thought most Canadians perceived that Canada does have the potential to be one of the world’s ten most important countries and a fairly distinct and much admired political laboratory. I believed it myself for a long time, and advocated it strenuously, as a commentator, a business spokesman, and ultimately as a publisher, arguably the country’s leading newspaper publisher. What I was proposing was not annexation, as I was regularly accused of favouring but did not, or even American imitation. It was successful competition with the United States. I thought, and still believe that if the social safety net were rolled back from being the hammock Trudeau made of it to buy votes from the separatists in Quebec and distinguish Canada from the United States, many of those who have left this country, most of them reluctantly, but lured by greater opportunity, lower taxes, and a less envious social ambiance, could be attracted back. In any case, the drain could be stopped or drastically reduced and Canada’s talent pool would rise.

The way to make this society constructively distinct from and truly competitive with the United States was never fabricated righteous collectivism, but civilized individualism.
This was essentially a cultural and philosophical change but so was the over-socialization of Canada in the sixties and seventies.
The problem was greatly compounded when, as a skilful tactical antidote to the agitation for increased provincial rights, Trudeau produced the Charter of Rights. The other provinces, incidentally, after the briefest pause for unctuous demurral from Quebec’s antics always demanded the same jurisdictional treatment as Quebec. The Charter was designed, I don’t doubt sincerely, to emphasize individual over jurisdictional rights.

The majority of Canadians are still profoundly seduced by notions of the country’s surpassing virtue, the world’s indispensable peace-keeper. Without mocking the forces involved, my own view, heresy in this country, was that if you have peace you don’t need peace-keepers and if you have war, they are of no use. Most Canadians remain resolutely oblivious to their country’s objective decline.

And, finally, Conrad’s side of the story around his renunciation of his Canadian citizenship:

… these issues became confused with the minor controversy between the Canadian Prime Minister and myself. Because this was a personal matter insusceptible to general interest, I haven’t much commented on it. If you will indulge me, I will say a few words about it now.

The National Post had exposed the fact that the prime minister had improperly influenced a government agency to make grants to a commercially dubious hotel in his constituency. It is adjacent to a golf course in which the prime minister had an interest and he had misled Parliament about it.

As we were exposing this story, the prime minister deliberately gave false advice to the Queen of the United Kingdom and Canada, that I was ineligible under Canadian law for the British peerage to which I had been nominated. The British government had initially asked the Canadian government’s view of this as a courtesy, and Ottawa had suggested that I seek British citizenship and be a dual citizen. I did so.

The Canadian Prime Minister then used the fact that I was a dual citizen, and the fact that the Queen cannot choose between conflicting advice from two prime ministers, to both of whom she is technically Chief of State.

I had not lifted a finger to achieve this honour and to become a member of what is certainly the most talented legislative chamber in the world. But the honour having been offered, I wasn’t disposed to be deprived of it in this outrageous way. I was assuredly happy to be asked. As I am not under the illusion that I have any aptitude for electoral politics and this is almost certainly my only chance to be any kind of legislator, and it is a fascinating time in British politics, I wished to accept. I sued in Canada for recognition of my rights as a citizen of the United Kingdom.

I was always impressed, as a law student and as a non-practicing lawyer, by the independence and cogency of Ontario’s high courts. When seized of the fact that the Canadian Prime Minister had exploited the anomalous position of the shared monarch to compromise my rights as a U.K. citizen, these courts simply denied that they had any right to review the prime minister’s advice to the monarch. I was, as I said when the Court of Appeal decision came down, the only adult, sane, solvent, unincarcerated citizen of the U.K. ineligible for an honour in that country because I was also a citizen of a country with a capricious and antagonistic prime minister without a serious political opposition or the discipline of a reliably independent judiciary.

Commercial and personal and political factors came together.

And so, some old thoughts from the scion of a wealthy and privileged former Canadian.  Conrad Black has continued to provide us with his opinions, more recently written from his cell in a Florida jail and printed as letters to the editor in the National Post, a newspaper he helped found and once owned.  With these latest U.S. court decisions, he may yet regain his full freedom someday.  Perhaps he will come back to Canada, resume his citizenship, become a political leader and drag us, kicking and screaming, towards the future he has envisioned for Canada.

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Responses

  1. interesting glimpse into the Canadian psyche… but what i don’t understand is the desire to be recognized, to grow, keep more people, etc. growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell…. if it became too visibly attractive, what would an influx of wildly ambitious immigrants do for the culture?

  2. @daisyfae: Really, Conrad would not be typical or representative of the Canadian psyche but rather that 1% or so of the upper crust. In that mindset can be fund the desire for growth, mostly of wealth and power.

    But one must also consider the times in which those words were written and uttered. It was a profoundly different time, and there has been a significant shift between now and then. Still, there are those who would want more recognition for Canada (look at how Canadians snickered from behind our hands because our somewhat regulated banks were unable to lead us down the path to financial ruin like banks in the US and the UK did to their respective countries – not that they wouldn’t have liked to, mind you).

    I agree with you about growth for the sake of the growth. That one makes me crazy every time I hear it.

    And Canada is already somewhat attractive. I shudder to think what it would be like here if we weren’t such a northerly climate. The human face and cultural landscape have both undergone vast changes from the time I was a boy, as it is.

    I guess I may have a tendency to arrogance and that’s likely what I find interesting about Conrad Black.

  3. i still consider Canada extraordinarily attractive as a place i wouldn’t mind living someday (ok, perhaps i’m a bit more skeptical after your recent experiences with critical care). the fact that it is a bit ‘under radar’ is part of that attraction…

    i’ll read more of his writing one of these days to get a better handle on him, but i’ve got no problem with arrogance when it’s warranted. it’s the folks who throw it around without reason that make me want to grab a sturdy plank and start swinging!

  4. Interesting, it seems you are suggesting those who leave Canada are better because they are leaving all the right reasons, those reasons being dollars.

    I wonder what Sir Edmund Hillary would have said to a person who suggested that he leave NZ to make a few more bucks.
    Of course he had a fault in that money held no interest to him, helping others was his strange ideal.

    • Actually, I’m not suggesting anything. Most of the remarks in this piece are Conrad Black’s, not mine. Bear in mind that the context is nearly a decade old now, as well.

      However, there was a time when I would have left Canada for the US largely for reasons of standard of living (which might, I suppose, translate to chasing a dollar). However, the world has moved on, I’ve grown older (and changed) and I would no longer sacrifice some aspects of life for a better standard of living, especially if that revolves around consumption.

      I do think that the brain drain has been driven – for decades – largely for the pursuit of more. That may be more wealth, more fame, more whatever. I think it only logical to assume that is a country’s best and brightest who will have the wherewithall to search for whatever it is they seek – successfully – in someplace other than their native land.

      I know very little of Sir Edmund Hillary and can not comment.


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