In a week of dramatic surprises, Conrad Black outdid himself once more by appearing outside his Toronto home Friday afternoon with his wife Barbara Amiel, only a few near-improbable hours after authorities said he would be released from a Florida prison.
Having eluded the media for every step of the day's odyssey, the former media baron and Federal Correctional Institution inmate, lingered outside for several minutes with his wife, watching their Hungarian Kuvaszok dogs play in the grass and pausing for a public embrace.
Lord Black's home was quiet on his first full day of freedom Saturday. There was little visible activity at the stately brick mansion, screened by trees and girdled by a black metal fence on a quiet side street of Toronto's wealthy Bridle Path neighbourhood.
Only one visitor dropped by, late in the afternoon, and a bouquet of flowers arrived.
Canada's Ministry of Immigration surprised many by offering Lord Black, who served 42 months for fraud and obstruction of justice, a temporary resident permit even though he had once renounced his Canadian citizenship to join the House of Lords. Very few, if any, prisoners could successfully petition the Canadian government for residency, but documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that officials believed Lord Black poses no risk to Canadians, in part because his high profile will draw scrutiny.
“I'm very happy. It's not been easy,” Ms. Amiel told reporters. “You don't celebrate after something like this, we're just going to stay home.”
The details of Lord Black's under-the-radar return are still unclear, and the media mogul declined to speak to reporters on Friday. But, by most accounts, his route back home was a remarkably privileged one, eased by multiple exceptions from normal protocol.
In March, Canada granted him a one-year temporary resident permit while he was still in prison, a decision so rare that one Toronto lawyer said, in similar cases, he wouldn't even bother applying for it.
Lord Black's trip home from Florida was similarly unimpeded, allowing him to avoid the throngs of reporters who were eager to catch a glimpse of him and to slip into Canada less than six hours after he is believed to have left prison.
Normally, inmates are released no earlier than 10 a.m. from the Federal Correctional Institution near Miami, Warden Rob Wilson told The Globe and Mail earlier this week. Lord Black, however, was reportedly freed around 8:30 a.m. Friday, picked up by immigration enforcement officials travelling in three vehicles – a van, a black SUV and a patrol vehicle. He was whisked away in one them, his face shielded behind tinted glass.
Convicts released into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are usually taken to a detention centre for booking and processing, which can take days or weeks to complete. But Lord Black's name did not appear in a public U.S. government database that tracks immigration detainees – a sign he may have skipped the detention centre entirely or that he may have left earlier.
Not long after his putative release time, an unidentified worker at the nearby Krome Detention Center told reporters Lord Black had been taken directly to the airport.
Immigration officials have stayed tight-lipped about Lord Black's departure, citing privacy laws and security policies, and it's unclear whether he took a charter or commercial flight back to Toronto.
Back home, neighbours in his exclusive Bridle Path neighbourhood were generally amused by the fuss, a few cracking jokes about “Conrad” and “the felon.” Another disparaged the assembled reporters as “vultures” and warned them to stay away from his property.
Navin Chandaria, who lives nearby, said Lord Black had “paid his price” and should be allowed to resume Canadian citizenship and live in peace, adding that he was looking forward to welcoming him back to the area.
“Absolutely, he's my neighbour,” said Mr. Chandaria, who described meeting him “several” times at parties. “He didn't murder anybody. It's only a business thing.”
Other neighbours echoed the sentiment.
“I think he's a very distinguished author and I think he's an important Canadian,” said Nigel Aplin, who described a gracious encounter years ago while the two were cycling. “I'm happy to see him back in the country,”
Others have been less generous. Earlier this week, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair used Question Period to call him “British criminal Conrad Black,” questioning why he was granted temporary status in Canada while other deserving applicants were turned down.
Lord Black has been repeatedly criticized for renouncing his citizenship more than a decade ago so he could obtain a British peerage. Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who forced Lord Black to choose between Canada and the knighthood, declined to comment on Lord Black's return on Friday.
The Montreal-born businessman was convicted in Chicago in 2007 for misappropriating money at newspaper giant Hollinger International Inc. He had been housed at the prison near Miami since September, but served the first part of his sentence in another, more remote, Florida prison.
Though his prison sentence is over, Lord Black's legal troubles continue. His lawyers are fighting a $70-million bill from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for allegedly failing to pay taxes.
Thoughts on Black’s homecoming
Brian Mulroney, former prime minister. “Conrad is a Canadian, and I’m delighted that he’s back in Canada. I’m sure he’s going to rebuild a very productive and a good life for himself and his family and his country. … The one constant of Conrad’s difficult period, including incarceration, was that he never lost his sense of history and he never lost his sense of humour. And if you can retain those two important elements of life, chances are you’re going to be okay.”
David Frum, author and journalist. “I think it’s wonderful to have him at liberty. It’s great that he’s able to return to Canada. There’s been a question mark over that. This is where he was born, where he grew up. Where he belongs. … It’s a big Internet out there; a lot of people will say a lot of different things. I find it hard to imagine there are many people who would seriously say that someone who was born in Canada, who grew up in Canada, who operated a business in Canada, created one of Canada’s great national newspapers, that person should not be allowed to find refuge in Canada.”
Peter C. Newman, author and journalist. “I don’t think it’s good for Canada, I don’t think it’s bad for Canada; I think he’s kind of an inevitable force, like gravity. … You don’t praise it or damn it. I don’t think he’s going to do anything for the country – that has never been his goal. But he’s a good writer. And I think we can expect some more good books from him. I think it’s a good thing he’s back. But I would like, at some point, just to get a thimble-full of remorse.”
Anna Porter, publisher and novelist. “I am delighted he is coming home, at last. In spite of his spat with [former prime minister Jean]Chrétien, this remains, and has always been, Conrad’s home.”
Doug Pepper, Conrad Black’s publisher. “As his friends, we’re just happy to see him free."
A range of Black naysayers
From paper workers to pensioners, the former press baron evokes strong emotions.
Former Calgary Herald employees. Dave Coles won’t be on Conrad Black’s welcoming committee, and it has nothing to do with the convicted Lord’s white-collar misdeeds.
In Mr. Coles’s mind, Lord Black is the media baron at the centre of an acrimonious, months-long strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000. Lord Black called the strike a “left-wing coup d’état.” Striking newspaper staff accused him of trying to crush unions.
Mr. Coles, now president of Canada’s Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, was a key organizer behind the strike.
“This guy is a bit of a blight on Canada. He denounces Canada, he denounces Canadian workers and he gets a golden parachute,” Mr. Coles said. “If it were some poor working stiff who’d been convicted, he wouldn’t get in.”
Jean Chrétien. Just your run-of-the-mill legal dispute, really. The Queen was to appoint Conrad Black a peer in the United Kingdom; he got his British citizenship and everything seemed fine until then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien intervened, citing a 1919 resolution barring such honours from being conferred on Canadians.
Lord Black sued Mr. Chrétien, alleging abuse of power and arguing the prime minister’s conduct “was wholly without legal basis.” The suit sought $25,000 in damages. Lord Black lost and ended up renouncing his Canadian citizenship in order to join the House of Lords.
Pensioners from Massey-Ferguson and Dominion stores. Conrad Black had little patience for those calling into question his business practices. When a Toronto Sun column criticized his decision to leave floundering Massey-Ferguson to its creditors, he dismissed “asinine” commentary – “not that the Sun is a newspaper of record to anyone who does not suffer from severe lip-strain after half-a-minute of silent reading.”
When he withdrew $30-million in surplus funds from Dominion store employees’ pension, he responded to cries of foul by noting, “We are not running a welfare agency for corrupt union leaders and a slovenly work force.”
Bob Hepburn. The columnist and Conrad Black have engaged in a public war of rhetorical polemic in two of Canada’s largest newspapers. Several months ago, Mr. Hepburn argued in the Toronto Star that Lord Black should be stripped of his Order of Canada. Lord Black shot back the next day in a National Post column, slamming Mr. Hepburn’s “false assertions” about the convicted Lord’s friends in supposedly high places.
Mr. Hepburn tangled with Lord Black again this week, criticizing what he sees as an unduly fast-tracked approval for the erstwhile Canadian’s temporary residency.
WIth a report from Kim Mackrael in Toronto