Margaret Atwood is delighted that Conrad Black is coming back to Canada. "He has a lot to say and contribute," she e-mailed from New York on Wednesday. But she thinks the Harper government may not be delighted. Lord Black, she notes, "is now a very informed and outspoken commentator on prison reform, and does not think the government's expensive mega-jails plan will work."
Believe it or not, Ms. Atwood and Lord Black have become BFF. When Payback, her book on debt, came out in 2008, he gave it a favourable review from his jail cell. She likes his book too. "Conrad Black's A Matter of Principle is a fascinating, erudite, & defiant prison memoir – must-read for lawyers, politicos, & gossips alike!" she tweeted after it came out last fall. Lord Black even made a guest appearance in the new documentary based on her book. At the premiere, she declared that he is "a new and different kind of Conrad."
Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled that Conrad's coming back. Thomas Mulcair, the NDP Leader, insinuated that Lord Black, whom he called "the British criminal," was only coming back because he got special treatment from his friends in high places. But politicians, even Conservative ones, are not suicidal.
The evidence suggests that Lord Black got the same consideration that is routinely extended to American baseball players with DUI convictions. Every year, 10,000 people receive temporary residence permits in Canada, and many of them have less than stellar pasts. As for being British, Lord Black is British in the same way that Mr. Mulcair is French. He has lived in Canada all his life. His wife and children live here. He renounced his birthright during a spitting match with Jean Chrétien over his elevation to the rank of Baron Black of Crossharbour. That was a colossal blunder. It meant he had to serve all his prison time in the United States, which locks up people for three times longer than Canada does.
During his 37 months as a guest of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, Lord Black experienced several jailhouse conversions. Most notably, he became an impassioned advocate for prison reform. U.S. prisons, he argues, are full of millions of innocent, near-innocent, impoverished, unlucky wretches who are victims of "the carceral state." He is convinced that the war on drugs is an abject failure, and he has called the Harper government's crime policies "sadistic and malicious." Not even Mr. Mulcair went that far.
Lord Black has also fallen out of love with the United States, a nation he once idolized. "Its greatness survives, certainly, despite chronic misgovernment, but my affection for it has faded," he has written. Last fall he wrote that after his release, "I will leave the United States forever, all passion spent." He has also rekindled a genuine appreciation for Canada, a nation he harshly criticized for years. The rapacious capitalism he once celebrated is less attractive to him now. He seems to have developed – dare I say it? – a social conscience.
I doubt that Lord Black is worried about the reception he will get back in Canada. He's already being swamped with dinner invitations. Many of Toronto's boldface names are competing for his company. So far as they're concerned, he's done the crime and done the time, and his rehabilitation is complete. Informed hostesses might be nervous about inviting Allan Gotlieb, the former ambassador to Washington, who was on his board and said some very nasty things about him. Nor will they invite his former defence lawyer, Eddie Greenspan. (Lord Black, speaking more in sorrow than in anger, says that Mr. Greenspan did a lousy job. Mr. Greenspan says the problem was that Lord Black was a lousy client.)
Actually, some of the smartest people in Toronto doubt there was a crime at all, and if there was, it wasn't much of one. They have come to agree with Lord Black that he was a victim of prosecutorial vengeance at the hands of a sadly broken U.S. justice system. Even Margaret Atwood isn't sure. "The grounds for his conviction – say the legal experts I have spoken with – are dubious," she e-mailed.
Whatever you think of his guilt or innocence, Margaret Atwood is right about his book, and right about the man. Lord Black is fascinating, erudite and defiant. Like her, he has a fierce intelligence and superb powers of expression. Like her, he is a wonderful public intellectual. Canada needs more of that.
So welcome back, Conrad. If you're good enough for Margaret Atwood, you're definitely good enough for me.