Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul and convicted felon* was in Calgary last week to have a “conversation” with the Calgary business elite (and me) over lunch at the Calgary Petroleum Club.
The big question is why does Baron Black of Crossharbour—oh let’s just call him Conrad—continue to draw sell-out crowds. By the end of lunch and the exchange between Conrad and Ms Danielle Smith, the leader of the Opposition, I had my answer.
Before we go there, let’s set the stage. The Petroleum Club dining room is, as you would imagine, an upscale venue. Tables filled with glittering china and silverware were clustered in front of a stage upon which were two comfy armchairs—one for Conrad and the other for our host, Dr Roger Gibbons.
Ms Soapbox was seated at table 35, the lone woman at a table of accountants, lawyers and businessmen. One of the accountants admitted that Conrad had been his client. The other whipped out The Concise Oxford Dictionary in case Conrad soared off into overblown oratory.
Conrad was witty and entertaining. He made a number of Conradesque comments. But he also said some things that were totally out of character. Here are the highlights:
The American and Canadian justice systems: The American system is “rancid”. US prosecutors enjoy a 99.5% conviction rate** in comparison to the Canadian conviction rate of 62%. US prosecutors achieve these stellar results by coercing witnesses to “turn” on the accused. The Canadian system is more even-handed and the defendant has a fighting chance. I agree.
The US penal system: Conrad says it’s not bad, at least in low security, but admits that he was not “psychologically in the place”. He had email access and his writing career flourished.
Conrad made an uncharacteristic and insightful comment: Prime Minister Harper’s push for more prisons and stiffer mandatory sentences is ill-conceived, particularly for non-violent offenders who generally leave prison in worse shape than when they went in. Hear hear!
The decline of America: America’s greatness was founded on hard working immigrants and brilliant statesmen (I’d venture a guess that Conrad sees himself in the latter category). However the US will sink into decline if it fails to correct three flaws: (1) complacency, (2) the utter lack of interest in anything outside their borders, and (3) the belief that they are an “exceptional” nation. He thought the US could turn it around, I’m not so sure.
President Obama: Obama gets credit for being the first non-white president and for stealing “Bill and Hilary’s party” right out from under their noses. However Obama has not shown global leadership in addressing the buildup of nuclear weapons and is “playing chicken” with the Republicans in a misguided effort to address the ballooning national debt.
Quebec: Quebec is a “society of consultants and academics, both equally useless” (to which Dr Gibbins took mock offence). Quebec’s “addiction” to transfer payments has eliminated the risk of secession and a federal party no longer needs Quebec to win a majority. Probably not how Mulcair sees it.
Ezra Levant and Mark Stone: The Human Rights Commission cases against Levant and Stone were “scandalous!” Freedom of speech must be protected. This principle holds for Tom Flannagan as well. This comment elicited a smattering of applause.
Enter Danielle Smith
The most interesting conversation occurred when a woman took the microphone and said, “Lord Black, my name is Danielle Smith”. The audience held its breath. What’s her question? It turned out to be innocuous—should Canada adopt a federal securities commission like the SEC?***
Conrad peered into the crowd, shading his eyes against the spotlight’s glare. “Will you tell me your name again?” Danielle repeated her name and reminded Conrad she’d once worked for him at the Calgary Herald. “Ah, you are indeed who I think you are”. After a pause he complemented her on the “tremendous job” she’d done with the Wildrose and added a jab at Redford’s PCs with the observation, “Conservatives sometimes fish too far to the left”. Clearly Conrad is not up on Redford’s recent attempts to be even more conservative than the Wildrose, nevertheless Danielle looked pleased.
Why did I pay to see Conrad Black?
Mr Black and his ilk hold great wealth and power (even after they fall from grace). They chair influential gatherings like the Davos World Economic Forum and the Bilderberg group. They shape provincial, national and global policies and our politicians unabashedly seek their guidance.
Two recent examples: Prime Minister Harper consulted with Murray Edwards, the billionaire CEO of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, about whether a Chinese state-owned entity should take over Nexen (Mr Edwards had reservations).****
Ms Redford told Ms Smith in Question Period that she would take advice from Brian Ferguson, CEO of Cenovus, on the “bitumen bubble” spread (and the basis for her austerity budget) “well before” she’d take the Opposition’s advice.*****
I paid $250 to see Conrad Black to get a sense of where the man is going and which politicians he’s taking along for the ride. It was worth every penny.
*Conrad was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice by the US courts and served 37 months of a 42 month sentence.
**In 2011 the US Dept of Justice reported a conviction rate of 93% so Conrad isn’t far off the mark.
***Conrad’s answer was no; beef up your provincial securities commission and sell it to someone who’s business friendly and criminal hostile.
****Globe and Mail online Dec 9, 2012
*****Hansard Apr 25, 2013, p 2046
Great post as usual.
I think Conrad Black got on someone’s bad side in the U.S. Given that other powerful people who commit far worse crimes don’t get prosecuted – I think there’s a reason why he ended up in jail. I’ve actually gained some respect for him. As arrogant and privileged as he is, he’s no dummy.
Thanks Andrea. Seems to me the prosecutors staked their reputations on slaughtering Conrad and were going to do it come hell or high water. Conrad did himself no favours by adding Eddie Greenspan to his already bloated American legal team. There were so many massive egos (Conrad, Barbara and the Canadian and US legal teams) that it’s a miracle the judge didn’t lock him up and throw away the key.
You actually spent $250 to figure out where Conrad Black et al were going politically? I hope the chicken was good.
I did and it was. I had a good idea of where Conrad and the team were going but it’s always interesting to see it first hand. The press certainly didn’t report the full spectrum of what he said. I have yet to see the Danielle Smith exchange surface anywhere.
Full marks to you for investing the $250 and giving us an excellent report — your tongue may have been somewhat in cheek on occasion, but that is exactly where it deserved to be.
I too worked for Conrad and have to admit that his private persona is far different from his public one. In his own way he can be quite charming — he can also be the opposite of charming, particularly when stealing pension funds. From your report, I would hazard a guess that the Calgary event featured more of the former than the latter.
And I am somewhat surprised that Danielle showed up (and wonder who paid for that ticket). I’d have to say that is a rather strange question — although I would also say she did raise an issue that needs addressing and one that is hardly at the centre of Wildrose politics. Good for her.
I must say I do enjoy your posts when you go out and take a look at the world and report back — this is what real reporters used to do before they decided they were advocates not observers. I know that $250 a week is a bit steep, but the more of these you can come up with the happier I will be to read your reports. And please do keep your sense of humor.
I do wish someone had raised the question of Post Media deciding their papers no longer need publishers and that “regional vice presidents” are just fine. Okay, as a former publisher, I probably have a dog in this hunt but I remain amazed that the local shitrag did not even see fit to acknowledge that their CEO had been fired. Their Tea Party politics are one thing but deliberate suppression of news they don’t like is quite another.
Is there any chance that you could check in on the City of Calgary’s subdivision debate? I know it is not really your centre of expertise but I am stunned that a handful of very wealthy builders and developers think that they can buy a council majority, with the help of dear old Preston Manning and his Centre to Suppress Democracy.
Kevin, thank you! As someone who had a ring-side seat when Conrad Black ran roughshod over the staff and publisher of the Calgary Herald (a painful loss) you have a better insight into the “real” Lord Black than any of us. And yes, the Conrad we saw on display last week was the kinder gentler Lord Black, however as he settled into the hour we saw flashes of his immense ego and acidic tongue.
Your feedback about getting out into the community couldn’t have come at a better time. I intend to do exactly that. At the end of the month I’ll be foraying into the Preston Manning’s Centre to Suppress Democracy (very apt) to hear their presentation on the City of Calgary’s Plan It project. The event is called “Imagination Gone Wild” so I’m guessing they’re not supportive. I too would like to get a handle on the battle between the developers and the rest of us who live in the inner city and will writing about that soon.
Although your post is great I personally would not have paid 50 cents to hear this charming man. He is an expert on spin and my respect for him and his wife are like the winters in Edmonton -30.
Statistics can be very deceiving depending how you interpret them and this particular one is probably not any different. Canada has no bite when it comes to celebrities and powerful people and the US is strong because I believe there is a direct connection between the private prison system and the number of people they process. Also truth be told that despite the fact that they are in general more celebrity crazy, they also are harder on them when it comes to crime. Conrad Black was never charged in Canada (surprise!!) but was in the US. This is why he know does not approve of privatization of jails or the American judicial system. From what I read he was rightly charged and he should have been in Canada as well. His direct connections with powerful right wing people in Canada may have been behind that failure of our judicial system. Not the first time and not the last for sure.
I never liked Conrad Black before he got in trouble and I stopped reading about him the moment he traded his Canadian citizenship for a Lord title in Britain. Now he wants his citizenship back only because in Britain he is now persona non grata and not invited into the aristocracy where him and his empress wife Barbara were the at home for a while.
Carlos, your points are well taken. From what I’ve seen, Conrad Black is an enigma. He professes to be a practising Catholic and yet sees nothing wrong with scooping funds from his companies to support his lavish lifestyle. He made a very telling comment at the luncheon which demonstrates that all he really cares about is accumulating wealth. When asked about his future plans he told us about his 30 minute interview show which will run on Vision TV. He said he’s doing the show in order to rebuilt his net assets. He recognizes that the show is based solely on his ability to attract famous guests (rather like Oprah). He was quick to point out that he’d be asking “soft and rather amusing questions” and not hard hitting ones. To give you an idea of what a puff piece this will be he noted that his London correspondent will be Dame Edna. There’s the measure of the man. He aspired to be a great statesman. He’s ended up on a talk show with Dame Edna.
Susan as far as being a practicing Catholic and scooping funds from his companies is nothing new, after all many of the great business people in North America have similar ethics. Scooping funds is nothing compared to what we know the Church is involved with. I am sure that if a less known church did what the Catholic Church has been involved with, they would have already been banned.
Well I think his program in Vision TV will just complete the picture. After all a clown is more noticeable with other clowns.
Statesman? Not sure where but Africa sounds like a good start for him. He seems to have a very peculiar opinion on sexual violence so Congo sounds like a perfect fit.
WOW the joke continues and it is getting dirtier by the day. These people are nuts
I hope they have 5% support soon
What??? Prime Minister Harper’s Chief of Staff personally paid Michael Duffy’s improper living expense claim of $90,000 and calls it a “gift”??? The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says if it’s a gift Duffy broke the Senate ethics rules and if it’s a loan Duffy has to pay it back immediately. Unbelievably bad judgment from everyone involved! Thanks for passing this along Carlo.
Yes Susan, this is the party that just thrived on the corruption and bad management of the Liberal Govenment. This is the pinacle of lack of respect for Canadians. They even had a party to celebrate all this black hole of morals. I am glad they won the majority after all, now they are doing what they fought for and the picture is one of ethical bankruptcy. The unravelling has begun.