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Books Conrad Black’s unique take on the history of Canada

‘Building more prisons that basically they throw the natives into, it’s just insane,’ Conrad Black now argues. ‘It’s an outrage.’

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The reviewers (including The Globe and Mail's) of Conrad Black's new book, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, have not been generous. The kindest word applied has been "ambitious"; the least kind were "arrogant, misinformed and disgraceful" – and they were all in one headline.

In critics' eyes, Mr. Black's sin has been to use the book to issue an unwarranted corrective to modern, inclusive ideas about native Canadian history. He is incredibly dismissive of indigenous peoples. His comment early in the book that "Indian society was not in itself worthy of integral conservation, nor was its dilution a suitable subject for great lamentation" could have been uttered in the 19th century by an idiot British colonel over a round of gin and tonic.

In fairness, Mr. Black is critical in his book of colonists' hypocrisy regarding the treaties they signed and rarely upheld. And, sitting down over lunch in a Toronto hotel, he agrees that Canada's treatment of native people has been atrocious, and is not getting much better. "This business of [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper's building more prisons that basically they throw the natives into, it's just insane. It's an outrage."

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But Mr. Black's decision to write a bulky, Eurocentric political history that focuses on explorers, monarchs, politicians and train barons at the expense of natives, and everyone else, is making his book a tricky sell in 2014. It feels like something from another era.

If Rise to Greatness was meant to be his re-entry into Canada's consciousness after his years in U.S. prisons and courthouses – and he admits that is somewhat the case – all it has done for many is remind them what a "snob" he can be, as one angry critic wrote.

I asked Mr. Black if the book was a "sort of love letter to Canada." Was he looking for a rapprochement after renouncing his citizenship in order to take a British peerage and, subsequent to his imprisonment on fraud charges in the U.S., seeing his Order of Canada rescinded? "That's not crazy," he said, "but it's somewhat of an overstatement. It's not so much a love letter. I do rather like the country, and always did.

"In Canada, we really have undersold ourselves, even to ourselves. That's why I wrote this book."

Mr. Black's thesis is that Canada is a great country not because of the usual bromides – social services, wilderness, diversity – but because it exists at all. "Whoever was going to live in the north end of this continent was going to do well because of the resources here, but setting up a country and getting your independence from the British without aggravating them to the point that they ceased to protect you from the Americans, and then getting any kind of real country going beside this powerhouse of a United States, was very challenging."

I also asked him if he was happy, possibly because we were having sandwiches together, and because, in person, he can be very amiable and real, not to mention funny.

"Getting there," he said. "I'm just finishing the complete disentanglement from my troubles. But I feel the same as I did, physically, 30 or 40 years ago."

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Now 70, Mr. Black says he lives half the time in England, and half in Toronto. He's still in business, "but they're private businesses. No one has any idea what my assets are or where they are." He also says his wife, Barbara Amiel, is fine now after suffering a period of illness that he wrote about.

"My morale is good," he says toward the end of the meal. "A theologian friend of mine gave me a phrase: Providence will restore the years the locusts have eaten."

And then he's off to catch a plane to London, and I take care of the bill.

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