Former news baron Conrad Black is expected to be released from his US prison later this week, and despite having given up his Canadian citizenship in order to accept an appointment to the British House of Lords, he has obtained a temporary resident permit from Canada's department of citizenship and immigration. This will allow him to remain in this country for one year, for starters.
I'm of at least two minds about this. From the late 1990s until his indictment in the United States in 2005, Black had very little in the way of good things to say about Canada. He made it clear he preferred the culture of Great Britain, the tax regime of the United States, and the companionship of a global wealthy elite to the people, policies, and politics of his home and native land.
He didn't just change his tune when he was incarcerated -- he switched genres entirely. The Canada's-a-socialist-dump dirge switched overnight to an upbeat pop number called "Canada Rocks!" Since 2005 Black has used the podium of his column in the National Post to praise Canada, its people, its laws, its former Liberal leaders, and its... animals.
The timing of it all is more than a little suspicious. I don't think it speaks super well of the man that he only started saying nice things about this place when it was clear that it was the only country where he might be even remotely welcome, but that he'd --oops -- gone and told his compatriots where they could shove their economy-class passport. I'm inclined to the view that the measure of a man is not how he acts when he needs the goodwill of others, but when he does not.
But Jon Kay, Black's editor at the National Post, has argued that Conrad Black is a genuinely changed man, that prison has given him an empathy for the unjustly accused and for his fellow man that he never had before. How sincere is any of this? I honestly don't know, but I'm willing to take Jon's word for it. People can change.
Not that it matters, since it isn't up to me. Conrad Black is coming home, and on the whole I think Canada will be the better for it. He invested more in journalism in this country when he owned the Southam chain than anyone has done since, and it has been my great privilege to work for and with journalists, editors, and publishers whose careers he made happen, directly and indirectly. Plus he's loads of fun and endlessly entertaining.
The only remaining question then is, where shall he live?
The assumption is that he'll go back to his pad in Toronto's ritzy Bridle Path. But I think it would be a mistake for him to go back to living, as he did for so long, amongst the elite and the out of touch. It would be a shame for him to lose contact with the common man for whose travails he has discovered such awareness and compassion.
Besides, isn't wanting to live amongst the high-powered and the high-priced precisely what got him into such trouble in the first place? His troubles with the law were in many ways a direct consequence of his enthusiasm for social climbing, in particular of his desire to be a peer (and later, Peer) of the crowd that Paul Fussell calls the "Top Out of Sight" class -- the billionaires and multi-millionaires who are so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. You never see them, and they never see you.
Instead of aping the English upper crust, Black might have taken his lead from his fellow rich guy Richard Branson, who turned his whole personality into a global brand. But Lord Black isn't an exuberant adventure-seeker like Sir Richard. So even better, he might have picked up the gauntlet tossed down by seriously rich guys Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and devoted his considerable genius and energies to charitable one-upmanship.
But Conrad Black never had remotely enough money to play in these leagues. Now he has even less, which is probably a blessing. What he really needs to do is jump into a pond where he can keep in touch with people who have no money and no real life prospects, while engaging his particular talent for status-seeking. That is, he needs to become a hipster.
Black is never going to look good in skinny jeans and a v-neck 70s t-shirt, but the spirit of Orson Wells that permeates Conrad's character could be leveraged into a mid-century Mad Men sort of cool that would be perfect for Montreal's Plateau. Better, given his Victorian-era vocabulary and a few tweaks to his wardrobe and Black could reinvent himself as a steampunk entrepreneur, selling carboys of science experiments out of a food truck in Ottawa's Hintonburg. But given how easily he managed to adopt the one-pantleg-rolled look of the prison yard, maybe his best bet would be to move into Toronto's gentrifying, but still ethnically complicated and economically downtrodden, Regent Park neighbourhood.
It doesn't really matter where he chooses to live, and with whom, as long as it isn't amongst the old tribe with its old values, the ones that got him into such trouble. Conrad Black has his country back: now all he needs is a people to keep him grounded.