Black is back: Now ... what will he say?

After a five-year absence from public life, Conrad Black is due up at the Empire Club

There’s something very Gulliver’s Travels about the title of Conrad Black’s speech Friday before members of the Empire Club of Canada, billed as his first public address since his release from a Florida prison last month: “My perspective of Canada after an absence of five years.” A bit of a self-serving euphemism–“absence”–so oblique you might even imagine Black himself believes his stint in jail was merely a blip of unpleasant awayness, a tortured period during which the U.S. justice system deprived Canadians of his presence.

That justice system, which Black has lately described as “the trumped-up system of the palace of corruption and hypocrisy of a courthouse in Chicago,” no longer has jurisdiction. His speech is to take place tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. Yet beyond the Swiftian title, there’s little indication of what he’ll discuss.

There might be a good portion of what the old Frank Magazine liked to call “fart catching,” given that Black, as a non-Canadian citizen, remains in this country more or less at the pleasure of the government. So it was that, during an interview with the National Post not long ago, he referred to the federal government’s unapologetic emphasis on oil sands exports as “perhaps the most imaginative geopolitical initiative Canada has undertaken since Louis St. Laurent and C.D. Howe announced that Canada would build the St. Lawrence Seaway,” adding that “Stephen Harper’s calm response to American waffling over the Keystone XL Pipeline has been a model of having a Plan B at hand when dealing with an unreliable partner.” We should expect more of the same tomorrow.

And, for similar reasons, it’s unlikely that Black, who became a fierce critic of American prisons–though not a histrionic one: “it was tedious and outrageous but it wasn’t all that unpleasant,” he has said–won’t visit similar scrutiny on the Harper government’s push for more prisons here. “Since I am not technically a citizen, it’s not my place to come in here on a temporary resident permit and get up on a soap box and harangue the government,” he told the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge last month.

Whatever he discusses, he will do it before an audience of well-wishers. “Wherever I go, there are well-wishers,” Black, indeed, said not long ago. “I have received more than 5,000 messages from Canadians in every province and from every walk of life, every one of them positive. It is a laborious but pleasant task replying to them all…”

Tomorrow may well be laborious too, but much of the fun will be in discovering who is among that mob of wishers-well at the Sheraton in the Grand Ballroom. For whom is Conrad Black a draw? Stay tuned.