I wrote the following short essay in October 2012 during one of the many media dustups concerning Conrad Black and his Order of Canada. Now he is out. This was the wrong thing to do. In October 2012, I thought the main problem was that other more sympathetic Order holders would get booted out. The main problem now is that many who should be invested in the Order will not be. Only time will prove me right or wrong but I really worry that the disinvestiture of Lord Black will be the bellwether that changes the criteria for the Order and for all the wrong reasons. I realize that this post will not win me many friends…. but read on and see what you think:
After following the debate closely, I do not believe that Conrad Black should be divested of the Order of Canada.
The temptation to remove from him from the Order is palpable. He is a convicted felon in the US. He renounced his Canadian citizenship. And now, he has written yet another tome where his self-serving weaknesses are bared for all to inspect. (This refers to his book: A matter of principle)
He is not a very likeable fellow when viewed from afar. His personal history reads like the prayer book in the church of bombast. His language is circumlocutory and tortuous. While the rest of us move from the dining room to the parlour, Mr. Black “repairs”. He is not the same as you and I.
Worse, he appears to think that he is better than us. This is clearly no plan to win a test of popularity.
Barry Switzer famously noted that “some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple”. Lord Black was born on home plate and can show you a trophy room that celebrates his home runs.
But for all his many faults, his fall from grace and troubled past, should the Governor General be seduced into following the opinion of the moment and remove his signature award? The answer is no.
Unlike David Ahenekew who made grotesque and impossibly misguided comments concerning Jewish people, Mr. Black’s only remaining criminal convictions concern obstruction of justice for carrying boxes out of his own office and a single conviction for fraud. While we snicker and all believe that he was up to something far more nefarious, we must depend on the public record for the facts on which he must ultimately be judged. Mr. Ahenekew’s transgressions were far more hurtful and embarrassing and his Order of Canada was only lost when he refused to recant his absurd accusations.
We are then faced with the foibles of Allan Eagleson who relentlessly raided the savings and pensions of the hockey players whose retirement protection he championed. Like Black, he revelled in the spotlight while allegedly fleecing those who held his trust. The comparisons are difficult to differentiate. If Eagleson lost his membership in the Order, then why should not Mr. Black?
The answer is that Mr. Eagleson was convicted of relentlessly and knowingly fleecing those who trusted him and Mr. Black was not.
But perhaps more importantly, Mr. Black continues to do good things. Since 2000, he has written three books (now four) and a number of thoughtful articles on the failures of the American and Canadian prison system. His arguments are persuasive and are a breath of fresh air from a man with his credentials.
He wrote one book and several articles following his convictions, some of which were written while behind bars. And more to the point, many of his accomplishments, unlike Ahenekew’s and Eagleson’s, were not summarily unwound by the transgressions that now form the case for his removal.
But with all that said, not one of these reasons number among the most compelling reasons why he should not be removed from the Order.
The most important reason is that Mr. Black’s removal would set an unacceptably low bar for dispensing others from the highest honour Canada can bestow.
Can we imagine far off convictions of Canadian heroes protesting human rights violations being reason enough to remove them from Canada’s highest honour? What if they had immigrated to another country after attaining the honour?
Many émigrés “renounce” their Canadian citizenship and Conrad Black only did so because of an antiquated 1919 request by the Borden government to the British government to refrain from giving awards to Canadian citizens – in other words, a technicality.
Should then other members whose only sins were to leave Canada and be judged guilty of a crime be automatic candidates for expulsion from the Order?
We can only hope not.
If contested criminal convictions and leaving Canada for another country are used as the deal breakers to remove Black’s award, there may be well regarded members who would be reviewed for a similar fate waiting in the wings both now and in the future.
The simple reality is that most of us are calling for Black’s removal not on the grounds that he is a convict and someone who has supposedly turned his back on Canada. Instead we want him out because we don’t like his persona, his aloofness, his litigious nature, his seeming arrogance and the un-Canadian sense we get that he believes that he is better than the rest of us.
This is not good enough reason to cashier him or anyone else from the Order of Canada.
October 29, 2012