My long time companion Johnnie Walker and I were just settling in for the night when the phone rang. The ubiquitous chirp of the mechanical ringtone, the defining aural signature of our times. It was a good buddy of mine, and I'm pretty sure that he was into his stash of British Columbia's finest horticultural product.
"Hey man, you and Conrad Black are finally together," he chuckled.
Now, this particular friend is a remarkable raconteur and a tremendous troubadour, but he's also got more stories than Disney, so I was wondering where this was going. He must be all wack-a-doo on the good kush. Johnnie and I were just starting.
"I just checked out your post and there's Conrad Black and right underneath him is you, man. Far out, man, that's trippy".
Yes, he actually said "far out". My friend regresses to '60s speak when he's been puffing.
As a recent contributor to the community of bloggers at the Huffington Post, my latest musings had, indeed, been posted right below an article entitled "Serious About Getting Shitfaced" by Conrad Black. And I knew what my friend's inference was, about finally getting together on the same page as Conrad Black.
You see, Conrad and I have a relationship dating back many years.
Flashback to the '70s.
My first job was as a grocery clerk at Steinberg's.
What began as a family run store in 1917 in Montreal, expanded into a Québec institution. The company became so entrenched in Québec culture that among French speakers, "Je fais mon Steinberg" ("I'm doing my Steinberg's") became a synonym for going grocery shopping, regardless of supermarket chain. Steinberg later expanded into Ontario and became Miracle Food Mart.
And not only did I have a job, I was also voted in as the youngest ever union steward in the chain. Local 175 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. It was a time when Union labour constituted about 40 per cent of the workforce. We were a group to be reckoned with. Nobody screws with the union.
But it was only the second largest supermarket chain in the province. The largest was Dominion, part of the Argus corporation. And who owned Argus? Conrad Black.
When Sam Steinberg died and his family started fighting over the company, there were rumours that Black was going to step in and buy them out. This would affect the union. I had to find out who this Black guy was. I bought a copy of Peter C. Newman's book The Canadian Establishment. Black figured prominently in the book. And I didn't put it down until I was convinced that I had come face to face with the enemy. This is a guy that we, the union, had to stand up to. This was a guy we could hate.
Later, I went to Ryerson Polytchnical -- now Ryerson University -- as a full time student in the radio and television arts program, but still working part time, and still a union steward. For my final year film project, I chose to shoot a film about the closing of the Massey Ferguson plant on King Street.
And who shut down the plant? The Argus corporation. The heinous actions spurred by that exploiter of the working class, Conrad Black! Him again!
Conrad and I lost touch until 1990 until we met again at the Savoy Hotel in London.
Well, we sort of ran into each other. Actually he was standing in the lobby and a long line of people were passing by and exchanging greetings with him. Back then, the very regal establishment was one of Black's favourite haunts, and in London, Conrad Black was the ultimate player.
Back then I was working for another player, Bernie Ecclestone, who ran (and still runs) the vast formula one empire. I was at the Savoy for meetings and had the temerity to walk right up to Black and introduce myself, mumbling something about ex-pat Canadians and working for Bernie.
I'm sure he doesn't remember but I sure do.
The next time I heard about Conrad Black he was being arrested and put on trial.
But I have to share something because travesties of justice and unfair persecution have to be held to the light. Because no matter what end of the economic spectrum you stand on, getting screwed over is universal. At the end of the day, as far as I can see, Conrad Black went to jail on trumped up charges.
Maintaining a modicum of dignity when deluged by a maelstrom of media half truths and speculation is not easy. And when the friends and colleagues that you've trusted for years, suddenly stop returning phone calls, when they stand up in public and say "J'accuse!," when you become a pariah, when the clank of the jail cell doors is the defining sound you hear as you try and maintain your sanity, when you're all alone, staring into the abyss, that's when you find out who you really are.
Believe me, I know.
It was with great interest that I watched Peter Mansbridge's interview with Black a short while after he got out of jail. The latter spoke of the corruption in the American justice system, and the travesty of the penal system. He knows; he's been in the big house. What really struck me was the humility with which he spoke about his prison experience. Humility wasn't a word one might associate with Conrad Black in the past, but you could see that he was a changed man. But not changed for the worse. His experience coupled with his intellect made him even wiser.
For those of us who understand exactly where he has been, we understand. He is, at the end of the day, just a human being, the frailty of ones existence always hanging in the balance no matter how high up the ladder one finds oneself.
And now an 11 person advisory council is considering revoking his Order of Canada? He's done his time, been crapped on in the press, and now this petty, hypocritical response?
Leave the guy alone, you got your pound of flesh.
Conrad, old pal, don't let 'em get you down. I know what its like when it seems like the whole world is against you.
And don't worry. One day we'll have that drink at the Savoy.
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