The Interview: Conrad Black on the 'magic thread' of Canadian history

Conrad Black on the ‘magic thread’ of Canadian history

Conrad Black ranks our prime ministers, and insists Canada’s time has finally arrived


Conrad Black remains one of Canada’s most divisive and mesmerizing figures—a historian, columnist and former newspaper tycoon who served 37 months in a U.S. prison for fraud and obstruction of justice. In his new book, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present, Black declares that the country whose citizenship he shed to accept a British peerage has truly come of age.

Q: You use an evocative metaphor: a “magic thread” that connects leaders and events in our history, from Champlain to the present. What do you mean by that?

There was this sense—rarely explicit—that animated the main builders of the country, that the northern half of this continent could be turned into an advanced and successful political society. It wasn’t a thread in a straight line, but Champlain’s idea was taken up by both French and British leaders who followed him to create a bilingual or, at least, bicultural society. Two cultures, not all of them speaking the others’ language, but living together and making it work.

Q: Central to that idea was the British actually protecting the French in Canada, despite having recently been at war with them.

A: If we had only English people, what is now Canada would have been taken over by the Americans. We had to have the French, who knew at the time that if they joined the United States, they’d be assimilated. But you also had to have some English to make the population bigger and to assure the continued interest of the British. The British would have traded a French Quebec to the U.S. in exchange for something. But they didn’t feel they could do that once there was a body of Loyalists here who’d left America because they didn’t agree with the American Revolution.

Q: If the open-mindedness and sacrifice this arrangement required got more emphasis in high school history, maybe Quebec and English Canada would understand each other a bit better.

A: I agree. It’s not so hard to stir people up with a slogan like “give me liberty or give me death.” But the sort of terms that Canada has dealt in—subtle and quiet discussion; imperceptible progress—are not easily put in heroic language. But it is heroic.

Q: Now you’re saying that Canada’s hour has arrived.

A: Two events got us there. First, the separatist threat in Quebec—unless we completely mismanage things—has collapsed. So the ability of the federal government to act as a responsible regime over the whole country isn’t in doubt. Second, the awesome contiguity of the United States is no longer so inhibiting. None of us should forget that we owe to the U.S. the triumph of democracy and the free-market system. But we were all brought up with a sense that all Canada could really aspire to in international affairs was to tug at the trouser leg of the Americans or the British.

Q: How do we make the most of this new-found stature?

A: Well, we know what we want to avoid. For all of the admirable qualities of the United States, it is at times an irritatingly brash country. The British can be condescending and hidebound and, of course, the French can be terribly obtuse. But these are the three countries we’ve been closest to, so we should start by emulating the things we like in them, while trying to avoid their weaknesses. Beyond that? Just be spontaneous. There’s nothing wrong with Canadians being Canadian. We’re not a bad people to be.

Q: Your affection for the country shines through in this book. But when you renounced your citizenship so you could take your peerage, a lot of Canadians took that to mean that you saw the country as defective or inferior. You called it “a plain, vanilla place.” Do you think the book will reverse that perception?

A: I didn’t write it for that reason. I would have to be brain-dead not to be aware that there were some public-relations problems with what happened. But my reason for renouncing my citizenship was that Jean Chrétien was taking the position that he had a right to create a category of citizen in another country, the United Kingdom, that is ineligible for an honour for services rendered in that country because that person happens also to be a Canadian. And the Canadian courts just said, “We have no jurisdiction,” which is rubbish, in my opinion. So I thought I would renounce my citizenship, and I’d then apply for it back. I’ve been interrupted in doing that because of all this nonsense that went on in the United States. But that’s still my plan. At no point was I saying I don’t like this country, or I don’t take it seriously, or I’m not proud to be Canadian.

Q: Is your Canadian citizenship more important to you now than your peerage?

A: No, I’m proud to be British also. It was an honour to be made a member of their Parliament and I enjoyed the debates I entered into there. So I don’t want to make it an invidious comparison. They’re both great countries.

Q: Given that history, I was surprised to see you describe Chrétien as “an important and, on balance, good and successful prime minister.”

A: What he did with me is not terribly important in the overall scheme of things. Putting together the patriation formula for the Constitution; patching things together when that conference had in effect broken down; bringing in the Clarity Act; and supporting [then finance minister] Paul Martin in getting the country on solid fiscal footing—we owe a lot of that to Chrétien and Martin.

Q: You call at the end of your book for more of the grand ideas and projects of our early nation-builders. Can you see that kind of vision in our current leaders?

A: I don’t, at the moment. This government has been quite competent in many ways. And while I’m not particularly a Harper enthusiast, I think he’s been a very capable Prime Minister. But I see nothing imaginative going on at all. Well, to be fair, a considerable bit in foreign policy. But it’s mitigated by the evaporation of our defence capability.

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Q: Near the end, you rank the prime ministers in tiers. At the top are Macdonald, Laurier and King.

A: And Trudeau.

Q: Canadians typically put Trudeau with the greatest, when they’re polled.

A: I think his record was poor or mediocre in almost everything except defeating the separatists, advancing Canadian culture and making Ottawa a more distinguished-looking capital. But he did, I think, save the country. So that’s why I put him as high as I did. He did have remarkable qualities of leadership. I knew him fairly well and he was a rather impressive man.

Q: Brian Mulroney, a friend of yours and one of the people to whom you dedicate the book, lands on the second tier.

A: But a very strong second tier. Brian tried some things that didn’t work, but he dared to try, and he did do things that were terribly important. He made a bold move in free trade and it was successful. The GST was a great fiscal step forward, and he was in a difficult position when he did it. We had a dollar down to about 65 cents U.S., and we had these big deficits because of Trudeau’s programs that were, when you get right down to it, designed to impress the French Quebecers with the generosity and desirability of continuation with the federal government.

Q: You stoutly defend him over the Airbus affair [where the government alleged in a letter to Swiss authorities that Mulroney had taken secret commissions on the sale of aircraft to Air Canada].

A: There’s not one shred of evidence he did anything improper.

Q: The Oliphant inquiry concluded that Mulroney had inappropriately accepted money from Karlheinz Schreiber [a German-Canadian businessman who had lobbied for Airbus and other companies].

A: You’re mixing things. Airbus was a disgraceful episode, and Brian did absolutely nothing improper. If you’re talking about the Schreiber business, I did comment separately that it was an unwise and undignified thing to do, and I don’t think he would dispute that himself.

Q: I’d like to engage you in a bit of rapid-fire. Who is the most under-appreciated figure in Canadian history?

A: Maurice Duplessis, who was, in fact, a great premier, and has been smeared as a kind of primitive and corrupt man. He wasn’t either. Authoritarian, yes, but no more than Quebec leaders usually are.

Q: The most overblown?

A: I guess Trudeau. He was a great prime minister, but those who would put him up as the greatest prime minister—or think he was a great statesman in the time of Thatcher and Reagan and Helmut Kohl—are smoking something.

Q: Should Louis Riel have been hanged?

A: Absolutely not. That and the financial skulduggery in the 1872 election are the two serious mistakes John A. Macdonald made.

Q: The historical figure, now dead, you’d most like to have a drink with?

A: Probably Champlain. I’d ask him what he really thought of [Cardinal] Richelieu!


Conrad Black on the ‘magic thread’ of Canadian history

  1. Interesting! I like “His Lordship” much against my better instincts, but i cant help liking people who are brave and stick to their guns.
    On the matter of the tiff with Chretien i think CB is rationalizing. As Andrew Potter once pointed out, Black wrote almost nothing nice about Canada until he wound up in the clink. But since he’s big enough to get over that and admirably speak up against the Harper govt’s ludicrous crime policy, i can overlook CB’s rationalizing. We are all human.
    Not having read the book i wonder how much CB deals with the third leg of our history – FNs imprint on us as opposed to European and US imprinting? I tend to think JRS nailed it – we are a Matis nation.
    CB’s take on Duplessis is ridiculous. The guy was a bully and thug, who used both the power of the state and the church against political opponents. The fact CB is prepared to down play MD’s authoritarianism doesn’t speak well for Conrad. But them many of the people he does admire – Thatcher and Reagan for two, had the same selective political morals.
    As for Sir John A. Great man yes! But good man no! Even for his time it is becoming apparent he was an ardent racist who was prepared to throw Aboriginal and Metis rights under the bus of history for the sake of nation building and political expediency. And let’s not even go near the Chinese question.But a hell of a lot of Canadians were in that historical boat. A hell of a politician though and one i would have loved to have a brew with.

    • Metis…sigh

  2. HERE’S an article Colby Cosh could write if he really wants to skewer the too-in-groupish Canadian Media: why on god’s green earth Conrad Black gets way way wayyyy more media coverage than he deserves, most of it sickeningly kid-gloved at that. Dissing the CBC is easy peasy compared to printing an honest opinion of m’Lord here.

    • exactly,
      “Bye Bye Birdie” -aka CONrod Black.
      ’nuff said.

  3. This man is just amazing. His reference to his conviction of fraud (to remind – that’s a serious crime) in the US as just some “nonsense” describes both his self deception and his self importance (as being above the law).

  4. I have a few problems with this.1. I think General Murray felt there would never be enough British power sent to help him subdue the natives i.e “habitants who although they posed no immediate threat, might with a reduced occupation force, which was likely because of pressing problems elsewhere. Also, they (the Brits) would have preferred to have the West Indies rather than this “ice box.” Ergo, let them have their language and let the Roman Catholic church survive.
    2. There was no heroism or astuteness on the part of Chretien and Martin to haul Canada from the depths of its debt position. It is a fact that finance department gurus told Martin that he had to act and act quickly to fix the debt and deficit problem or Canada would lose all credit standings.
    3. While Black chooses to make light of “the little problem” in the States, he was being a bad boy and got caught. He deserved to go to the slam.
    4. Hiss choice of the best prime ministers is egregious. Papa Trudeau was not a great PM but left the country in a terrible financial state – so much for LSE, Harvard and the other places where all he did was sit in on lectures ; his law degree was second rate being valid only in Quebec.
    5 While true Canadian blood was being shed in WWII he insulated himself at University by joining the COTC, from which he was truv
    fed for supporting the Montreal Mayor, Houde.
    6. It would have been more appropriate if he had run for the socialist party, since his visits to their haunts gives rise to questions as to what he was doing there..
    7. He was a disaster as far as the West was concerned. He had not time for it and it (other than Margaret Sinclair had no time for him. Actually,
    Chretien was worse.
    8. Now I think CB is losing his marbles. Duplessis a great premier? I think he was the nearest thing to a fascist that we have had and would have been happy with a full ultra montane state.

    One thing we must give to CB is that he has the gift of the gab!