There it was—on Yahoo News last week. Seventy-year-old Barbara Amiel fainted into her courtroom chair when she heard the verdict: her beloved Conrad would be going back to jail for another year. Well, you might say,’ boo-hoo’ for the tiny rich girl in the Manolo Blahnik pumps.
But of course Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour are not like the rest of us. I looked out my kitchen window this morning and contrasted what I was seeing—the unburned pile of brush in the fire-pit in the backyard, the patch of yellow grass where the tent sat too long, the kids’ stray basketball—with what they must have experienced: servants delivering The Times on trays, coffee from a silver service, that sort of thing, and good for them.
Conrad Black started from a privileged position. He attended Canada’s prestigious Upper Canada College from which he was expelled for selling stolen exams, entered Trinity College School, managing to get himself expelled again, this time for insubordination. Later, he flunked out of the Osgoode Hall law program, finally getting his law degree from Université Laval in Montreal and a Masters in history from McGill. It goes without saying that, unlike most of us, young Conrad got more than his share of chances and good fortune.
Black inherited a portion of that good fortune from his father. The holdings included Ravelston Corporation with interests in the Argus Corporation, which controlled large stakes in mining, pulp and paper, communications, groceries and manufacturing. Black’s first brush with professional controversy came when he took control Ravelston and Argus amid allegations that he’d taken advantage of the aging widows of the recently deceased majority shareholders.
Barbara came from more pedestrian circumstances. She was born into a Jewish family in Watford, Herts., England, where her parents divorced when she was eight. She and her mom migrated to Hamilton, Ontario and lived a modest, financially-challenged existence, and by her late teens was living on her own. She had three things going for her: her looks, her brains and her ambition.
By the time she was 37 she’d been married three times (the fourth and fifth were yet to come) and was a feature columnist for Maclean’s magazine, transforming herself from school-girl communist to right wing conservative commentator.
Around 1990, Barbara and Conrad became an item. It was rebellious-situationally-ethical-avaricious-media-tycoon meets beautiful-arrogant-ambitious-media-socialite. Perhaps a more perfectly matched pairing couldn’t have been forged in hell.
You get the picture. Especially the one of Lord and Lady Black arriving at a ball in England dressed as wicked Cardinal Richelieu and the excessive Marie Antoinette. Much has been made of the irony of the image, especially after Amiel’s essay comparing herself to the unfortunate Marie in Maclean’s in 2006. But, really, is that the whole story…?
Meanwhile, Canada was changing. While Conrad launched the famously conservative National Post the country had politically moved from Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives of the 1980s to the centrist Chrétien Liberal regime of the 1990s, the government that would refuse to give Conrad dual citizenship if he accepted the royal peerage in Britain. The couple chose to leave, revoking Canadian citizenship.
But why did this couple turn out this way? Better yet, does it really matter, and why should we care? And what does this couple tell us about the Canadian psyche?
Maybe the most telling bit of information comes from biographer, George Toombs, who wrote, “he was born into a very large family of athletic, handsome people. He wasn't particularly athletic or handsome like they were, so he developed a different skill—wordplay, which he practised a lot with his father.”
It’s no stretch to see Black’s rebellion and later towering arrogance as a cover-up for this childhood sense of inferiority, in the same way that Amiel’s excessive ambition became the mask for her own humble beginnings.
Ironically (and that word seems to fit the Blacks' story like a glove), both of these psychologically insecure Canadian media intellectuals are now shunned in the two countries from which they sought the greatest recognition—the United States and England. Conrad will never be allowed back into the U.S. once his prison term has been served, and neither of the Blacks is likely to be received back into British high society.
No matter how one slices it, these striving Canadians were just not good enough. And few of us ever seem to be. Even the most famous of Canadians seem to fall back to second string, from Neil Young to Alanis Morisette to the present rulers of the rumoured-to-be-crumbling RIM-Blackberry empire, James Ballsillie and Mike Lazaridis, who were knocked off the world billionaires list just this month as Apple Inc. threatens to supercede them in the high-end cell phone market.
So what does this say about us as Canadians, or about us as Maritimers? Simply that we’ve still not overcome our inferiority complex when faced with our more powerful neighbours. And how might we get over that? I dunno. But I think the Newfies are leading the way, just as the Irish have done in the U.K.
And it’s definitely mentally healthier to be a great Newfie or Irishman than a second-rate American or Brit. But if you don’t believe me you’ll just have to ask Rick Mercer or Pierce Brosnan…