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Oh Please! Lord Black is no Omar Khadr

Like him or not, approve of him or not, despair of him or not, Conrad Black is as Canadian as maple syrup and a hockey stick, and neither a threat nor a danger to fellow Canadians -- unlike, say, Omar Khadr.
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Now that Conrad Black will be released this weekend from prison and returned to Canada, the question of the moment is whether he can, or should, regain the Canadian citizenship he renounced in order to accept a British peerage.

Although not "officially" a citizen, he has a temporary resident's permit until next May. At which time he can take the next step towards regaining citizenship.

Although there'll be some squawking from predictable elements at this, it's not a big deal. He'd been granted multiple entry permits by the government, lasting one year, back in 2005, 2006 and 2007. Each for a set fee of around $200.

So the question now is whether he will apply for citizenship in the land of his birth, where he grew up, where he went to school, where he ran his business. A fourth generation Canadian.

Some might wonder whether he lost his citizenship in the first place.

It could be argued (and may very well be before this matter is closed) that his renunciation was part of a feud he was engaged in with then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, whose vindictiveness is legendary. Was the renunciation real -- or rhetoric?

If they possess even a modicum of fairness, even the most vigorous of Black's critics will acknowledge that Chretien was grotesquely malicious in forcing Black to make a choice back in 2001 when he said, as a Canadian citizen Black could not accept a British peerage.

The British government felt it was inappropriate for the Canadian Prime Minister to tell the Queen which British subject she could or could not honour, especially since Black legally held dual British and Canadian citizenship (since 1977).

The court, however, ruled that the Canadian PM had a constitutional right to "advise" the Queen about Canadians, and that it was within Chretien's mandate to rule against Conrad Black.

Being born a Canadian, it's pretty difficult to pretend Conrad Black is not a Canadian, intemperate language when feuding with Chretien notwithstanding. There's really nothing anyone can do to change the reality of Black's birth or nationality.

The PM shouldn't be the one to determine citizenship. Just because he doesn't like someone (in this case Conrad Black) he can't say he's no longer a citizen if he does so-and-so. Similarly, if Conrad says "I am no longer a citizen," because the PM did so-and-so, that also shouldn't mean he's forfeited it forever.

In a way it's like actor Alec Baldwin saying he'd emigrate to Canada if George Bush were re-elected in 2004. Or Susan Sarandon saying the same thing if John McCain had been elected in 2008. Or former White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, saying he'd emigrate to France if Bush was elected in 2000. (Bush was elected, but instead of emigrating, Salinger chose to die). The others continue living in the U.S.

All of which goes to show that words, uttered in anger or frustration don't carry legal weight. On another level, if Omar Khadr is deemed Canadian because he was born here, and is due to be returned to Canada any day now, how could Conrad Black be refused? Khadr, his parents and siblings have been enemies of Canada's interests and values, and Omar has killed Canada's allies and supported terrorists.

Black was put on trial in the U.S. and not Canada, and initially faced 17 charges of fraud. Some were dropped and eventually he was cleared of all except two of the minor charges, one of which was obstructing justice by obeying an order to clear his property out of Hollinger's offices in Toronto -- which was caught on TV security cameras and looked bad.

It turned out U.S. prosecutors already possessed copies of the material Black removed.

Not everyone is sanguine about Black returning to Canada.

The Toronto Sun, editorially (and wrongly in my view), argued that he should not be allowed to return. A recent CBC poll of listeners found that 69% of respondents felt Black should not get his citizenship back, 27% believed he should. Less than 3% were undecided, which indicates almost everyone has a strong opinion about Conrad.

CBC polls generally reflect views that the CBC endorses.

This year, the Toronto Star's Bob Hepburn wrote that the Order of Canada awarded to Black in 1990 should be rescinded, as were the Orders bequeathed on Alan Eagleson, David Ahenakew, T. Sher Singh and Steve Fonyo -- all for questionable or criminal activities. One, Ahenakew, made disparaging remarks about Jews and was convicted of a hate crime, which was appealed. At a second trial he was acquitted.

No move has been made towards removing Black's OC ("under review" was Rideau Hall's response). Black remains a member of the Queen's Privy Council of Canada -- an advisory group appointed by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn in 1992 on the advice of Brian Mulroney when he was PM. He is still a lifetime peer as Baron Black of Crossharbour.

If the Order of Canada is to mean anything, it should never be rescinded. If awarded for exceptional services, future actions should not detract from it's worth.

In 1920, King George V said the Victoria Cross, once won, cannot be rescinded (as it was for eight previous VC winners guilty of things like desertion, bigamy, theft). A VC winner if convicted of murder, "should be allowed to wear the VC on the scaffold."

By being rescindable, the Order of Canada has become more a political bauble than a merit award. Pity.

So like him or not, approve of him or not, despair of him or not, Conrad Black is as Canadian as maple syrup and a hockey stick, and neither a threat nor a danger to fellow Canadians -- unlike, say, Omar Khadr.

Periodically, since his celebrated trial in Chicago in 2007, I've written about Conrad Black's case, and visited him twice in the federal prison at Coleman, Florida. I've been sniped at by some as being in his thrall and blind to his crimes. Inevitable, perhaps, with any controversial subject, but undeserved and untrue.

I covered most of Black's Chicago trial, as I have covered other trials in a long and undistinguished career. Included are such as the trial of Ron Turpin for murder, the last man hanged in Canada in 1962; the trial of Jack Ruby, assassin of President Jack Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald; the trial of Charles Manson in Los Angeles; the trial of Sirhan Sirhan, slayer of Robert Kennedy; and cases such as Leonard Peltier and Laurie Bembenek.

As for Black's four-month Chicago trial, I heard nothing that indicated guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, I witnessed a lynch-mob prosecution, twisting whatever facts they could, and indulging in absurd rhetoric to get a conviction. As their case crumbled, their main witness against Black -- his former partner David Radler -- looked worse and worse. He was the instigator of fraud, not Black, who was too busy playing Lord Black with Lady Black, while Radler looted the till, so to speak.

Other high level witnesses -- company directors, review committees and such -- were all negligent or incompetent in their scrutiny: the likes of Henry Kissinger, Marie Josee Kravis, former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson. Weasels, if you ask me.

Accepting that there was little that could be called "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" against Black at his trial does not mean that one can't question certain ethical or business practices he indulged in. Yet all were legal -- even (especially?) the "non-compete" fees instead of taxable bonuses. As it was, in the various sales of publications, Hollinger investors did very well.

The company fell apart when regulators took over, paid themselves exorbitant fees, lost everything, and made victims of investors. They, not Black, destroyed Hollinger.

I found Black's book about his case -- A Matter of Principle -- astonishing in its detail and candour. Selective, perhaps, but intriguing. I thought Black's treatment of his Toronto lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, both unfair and a mistake.

In my humble view, with no inside access or special knowledge, it was Greenspan who won all the points he dealt with at the trial. Greenspan got Black a "not guilty" verdict in the nine charges he argued, while the four guilty verdicts were not Greenspan's doing. Greenspan did not handle the obstruction charges.

Inevitably, there'll be a circus quality to Conrad Black's return to Canada. Old wounds will be re-opened, past prejudices revived.

Perhaps, the most reassuring thing for Black and those who agree that he has never ceased being Canadian (despite his verbal rejection of the country as it existed under the narrow meanness of Chretien), is that Omar Khadr is returning.

Maybe Khadr "coming home" will make it easier to accept Black's re-settlement in Canada -- if that is his future. Clearly as a "foreigner" who has served his time, the Americans want to be rid of him. Likely he'll never again visit the U.S.

For those who question Conrad Black regaining citizenship (as well as residency), maybe Chretien's selective vindictiveness in trying to deny Black his British peerage was because Black's new newspaper, the National Post, was superbly critical of Chretien and his government.

In relatively recent times, two Canadians who are also British residents -- Sir Terry Matthews and Sir George Sayers Bain -- were awarded knighthoods, while Chretien drew the line at Conrad Black. Earlier, Ontario native Sir Bryant Irvine was knighted in 1986, as was Quebecker Sir Neil Shaw in 1994.

Former Prime Minister Trudeau's expert on heraldic symbols, Sir Conrad Swan, was knighted by the Queen when he served in the Royal Household in the early 1990s and was chief Heraldic officer at London's College of Arms.

Okay, so Conrad is coming home. What will he do with the rest of his life?

Well, he won't be running a company like Hollinger, nor is he likely to start another newspaper, as he did with the National Post. What Conrad can do is write, and his three or so years in a Florida prison enabled him to write without other distractions. Not only books, but newspaper columns and commentaries like his weekly blog on Huffington Post Canada.

He also developed skills as a teacher -- helping inmates at the Coleman Complex become educated and to perhaps change their lives. By his own admission this was an unexpectedly rewarding experience, and likely made him more human.

Through his weekly column in the Post and elsewhere, Black developed something of a fan- base. His steadfast insistence on his own innocence, the wry humour and apparent cheerfulness of his dilemma as a "guest of the American government," won over some who might otherwise have resented what they thought was Black's arrogance.

Arrogant he may have been, and arrogant he may still be, but he is also ineffably courteous and gracious. Throughout his ordeal he was defiant and indignant -- but there was no cry-baby or whiner in him. And that's an appealing quality that many recognized in him for the first time.

Whatever the future holds, Conrad Black is back in Canada.

We have not heard the last of him.

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