Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Restoring the years the locusts hath eaten: Canada's History with Conrad Black

The theme of restoration is an inescapable one with Conrad Black. In a recent interview with Peter Scowen, Black invoked the Old Testament passage from Joel, almost as a morale-boosting incantation. It was a bit surreal to finally see Black in the flesh at the final event of the 2014 fall edition of the Festival; for his absence from the country, and relative rebuilding phase upon his return in the preceding years left a void that very few, Canadian or otherwise, can fill. The latest book that he was in Ottawa to promote is Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.


Adrian Harewood, in his introduction, has noted that Black has been "at the very centre of our national conversation, he has helped shape it, and has been a subject of it." I entered Black's orbit by picking up free copies of the National Post as a Science undergrad at the University of Waterloo in the mid-2000s. As a newcomer to Canada, the Post, while perhaps past its fast and the furious salad days of its budding years, was my initiation into the Canadian polity and helped articulate much of what I had swirling in my inchoate thoughts on a wide range of subjects. Chris Cobb's fast-paced, and widely underrated account of the start of the Post features Black as a swashbuckling, brash protagonist who managed to be both a man of letters, and a man of action. Perhaps it is no surprise that Black has particularly excelled in political biography. His choice of subjects: Duplessis, Nixon, and FDR, are as varied as they are incisive. Employing prose that is characteristically (and unashamedly) mangniloquent, his reader is often required to switch into another literary gear to match the elevated terrain.


At 70, Black is far from a spent force, having recently completed both a memoir and a strategic history of the United States. His main reason for writing a (comprehensive) history of Canada was that he felt that the sweeping narrative of the country had yet been effectively attempted, and far from being penance, it is instead a paean to the quieter and no less heroic success of Canada as a bi-cultural parliamentary democracy. Excepting Will Ferguson's throughly entertaining and excellent primer, it is hard to summon a single volume title of Canadian history (Bothwell's Penguin History of Canada seems to firmly latched itself onto libraries without making any waves in the general market.) 


One of the main gripes that has been made, almost uniformly, by reviewers of his book is of Black's dismissal of Aboriginal contributions to the formation of this country. Harewood posed a challenge to this Eurocentric vision by paraphrasing a section of John Ralston Saul's A Fair Country that asserts Canada as a Métis civilization. One of the things that struck me during the evening was Black's acquiescence whenever he was challenged (in contrast to the testy exchange in a BBC interview from 2012). His basic response was that he respected Saul's expertise on Aboriginal issues but that he stuck by his position that Native culture was "terribly violent, constantly at war," and "a Stone Age culture that had not yet invented the wheel." It would be quite easy to dismiss Black as prejudiced, but he also takes to task the post-Champlain Europeans whose brutality he denounces as "outrageous." In addition, he has further been chastised for downplaying the contribution of the Canadian Corps during WWI, and not giving sufficient space to Sir Arthur Currie, arguably Canada's greatest military leader Moreover, Black—whose criticism of the US prison sytem is well documented—is very harsh on the Harper government's law and order agenda, calling it a "disgrace," concerning itself with building "prisons to accompany Native people who shouldn't be there." He would add, "no non-violent people should be sent to prison," earning a quip from Harewood that Black sounds like Angela Y. Davis.


Black is very effusive in his praise of Champlain (making me want to move Fischer's esteemed biography higher up the reading list), and the fascinating thing about Black is his willingness to disentangle personal opinion from professional judgment. Hence his ranking of Trudeau into the top tier of leaders for facing down separatism even if, in Black's opinion, the rest of his achievements were moderate at best. Even more impressive is his praise for Chrétien, despite the incident that led to Black having to renounce his citizenship to enter the House of Lords that no doubt strained their relationship. Black is also not a Harper basher; he was effusive about his managerial competence and pointed out that Harper won four straight elections with an increasing percentage of the vote each time, a feat that not even FDR managed.


Some interesting diversions led us into a discussion of Black's teaching in prison (an experience whose fruition at the graduation ceremony for his pupils he called "the most gratifying of my life"), ideas to address inequality, and the eccentricities and brilliance of W.M. King. It is evident, like this review, Black's account leaves much unsaid, but as The Globe and Mail cited in their inclusion of the book in their Top 100 for 2014, "a project this audacious cannot be ignored."