Barbara Amiel on getting Conrad home

"After all those years in prison, I know we were expected to be popping champagne corks, but it isn’t like that"
Barbara Amiel
Conrad Black, right, and his wife Barbara Amiel Black watch their two dogs as he arrives at his Bridle Path residence in Toronto on Friday, May 4, 2012. Black and his wife, Barbara Amiel, have broken their silence for the first time since the fallen media magnate was released from a U.S. prison this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Getting Conrad home
Mark Blinch/Reuters

No one got it right. Not me, not the press, not Conrad. The week of May 2 had no script. The way it was supposed to be was this: after nine years almost to the day, we were coming to the end of a nightmare. I would stand at the gates of the Miami Federal Correctional Institution in a pretty dress in one of the colours the prison rules had never allowed when visiting—which was pretty much every colour that looked any good on me except for black. Conrad would come through the door that had been slammed in my face with the warm comment “get her out of here” the previous Sept. 5 when he self-surrendered to prison for the second time. We would embrace and walk quietly into the twilight of our lives.

Precisely where we would go after that I didn’t know. We wanted to go straight to Toronto. But our “itinerary” had to be approved by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before he left prison in case we ended up doing a Meyer Lansky, being shuttled from country to country and refused admission. Conrad had a British passport but no Canadian papers. We thought Canada would admit him as a visitor for a few days at least, and we hoped if he wasn’t allowed to go directly into Canada we could get out of the U.S. to a nearby British Overseas Territory and try from there. Bermuda was suggested. The Cayman Islands. Each one was being investigated by counsel and the British consul in Orlando.

Meanwhile, I was trying to find the cheapest way to fly out of the States without going commercial. Okay, I know that means dozens of letters telling me how rich and lucky we are to be able to have that as an option and yes we are. And if your husband faced the prospect of sitting in the Miami airport for God knows how many hours in handcuffs and shackles with U.S. marshals on each side of him, the media watching gleefully, and then being marched onto a planeload of passengers so they could look up from their bottled water to see him being unlocked, you might feel it was worth trying. But by the last week of April I was still unable to book flights for us. I didn’t know where we would be going.

Still, on the first weekend in May I was experiencing moments of excitement. Every now and then, the idea that this was coming to an end and my husband would be with me broke through the stone wall of denial. If you’ve had a child or spouse in long-term danger from illness or injury you must know all about how you cope. You put a lid on what’s happening and disengage from reality in order to stay sane.

I had managed reasonably well. For nine years I had looked at life rather like an alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind—life was out there and spoke a language I couldn’t understand. The voice I heard talking was not my own, simply sounds and words that someone else was saying. The case had been swaddled in so much press and publicity that knowledge of the facts had become absolutely unnecessary in order to have an opinion—it was a bonanza for blowhards—and I’ll make a bet that no one reading this column could coherently explain the conviction to this day. But that won’t hinder you.

The original sentence was 78 months reduced to 42 months, less the 15 per cent time off for good behaviour. That worked out to a release date of Saturday, May 5. I had calendars in my bathroom and on my desk and next to the bed. At the end of each Saturday he was away in prison, three years and two weeks over a period of four years and two weeks (he was home on bail between appeals), I would put a black ink line through the week and then at the end of the month a big X.

This is where I wish I had a large water pipe and some opium. Apparently if you get enough of its fumes you can write a novel or a play like Jean Cocteau’s Les parents terribles in seven days (which I’ve never read but the thought of getting an entire play down on paper in seven days makes my typing fingers numb with envy). In a moment of madness, I had volunteered to write down for Maclean’s my thoughts when Conrad came home and then I reneged and then Rogers honcho Ken Whyte came to lunch.

“What were Conrad’s first words when he came on the plane?” he asked. Actually, they were all of one syllable. “My brave sweet duck,” he said, “the night is over.” I had been watching him as he arrived in the back of a white Chevrolet without tinted glass that drove onto the runway. I couldn’t see his face in the car but I saw the handcuffs, which is odd really. They glinted. When he got on the plane he rubbed his wrists because the handcuffs were too small and they were chafed after wearing them for the hour’s drive. “They did me a favour,” he said. “Who?” “Mr. Diaz and Mr. Chavez. They handcuffed me in front instead of behind and gave me a raincoat to put over them. They asked me to promise I’d mention their names in whatever was written.” Done.

I know we were expected to be popping champagne corks but it isn’t like that, you see. You’re afraid to let go until the next hurdle has been overcome—in this case, Canadian immigration—and so we sat in the plane bone weary, both of us unbelieving. A friend, Sid McMurray, had arranged the charter from Skyservice, which was vital it turned out because the time Immigration and Customs Enforcement was prepared to hand over Conrad changed a few times and Skyservice’s Lyn Shinn (known as the Divine Shinn in our household) arranged for the plane to stand by all day for pennies. I wanted to embrace Conrad but I had learned that premature celebrations always led to bone-shattering disappointments. Conrad was carrying his medical health checkout papers with bottles of allowed medications and a statement that he had, among other things, “Anxiety state/psychosocial and environmental problems/depressive disorder/hypertension/acute upper respiratory infection” and so on. He had his foam earplugs wrapped in a bit of paper towel and four chewed-up pens, a nearly finished tube of lip balm and a very dodgy looking comb. “I gave my good stuff,” he said, “to other residents.” “What good stuff?” “My earphones, radio and reading light.”

We had both become marginally bonkers in our caution and pessimism. The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had told Conrad that his release date would be May 4 rather than May 5, which was a Saturday. “Don’t count on it,” Conrad said. “This could be another game.” Everything is a game, or as one of the defence lawyers said happily after the trial in Chicago, “this is great stuff, entertainment for everyone but the defendants.” By May 1 we knew it would be the Friday, May 4, and hoped that would throw the press off since BOP was still putting out the release date of May 5 online. Nothing personal: press is neat if you are Kim Kardashian or a Nobel laureate but not if you are coming out of prison with a haircut that reads bad Liberace, a complexion that makes pastry dough look in good health and a figure that has gone due south, plus a mental state like a frayed elastic band. I didn’t want him tormented with questions like, “How does it feel to be free, Conrad?” from thirtysomething reporters.

On May 1, I was choosing clothes for Conrad. The U.S. Department of Justice’s “authorization to receive package or property” form in triplicate copies had arrived permitting me to send via Canada Post one pair of trousers, one pair of shoes, one pair of socks, a belt and a shirt, but no jacket or underwear. I had never seen BOP underwear but I couldn’t help thinking that it may not have been woven on the finest loom. In case the package didn’t make it to Miami in time, I packed a suitcase to take with me: a suit if we had to go to the U.K., a jacket for Canada, lighter clothing for Bermuda, a couple of ties and underwear. Now that ICE had decreed I couldn’t meet him at the prison, I gave up on the pretty dress thing and opted for jeans comfort and getting my hair done.

May 2 the merde hit the fan when Opposition Leader Mr. Thomas Mulcair decided Conrad was an issue. Christ, I’ve never been a fan of the NDP. I was a CCFer in the days of Tommy Douglas but I haven’t seen anything much lower than Mulcair’s effort to keep the “British criminal Conrad Black” out of Canada because he was white and connected. I wish. Not the white thing—he is white, too white actually—but connected? Connections can be a huge liability at a time like this.

Over the course of nine years I have studiously avoided reading the press. I mean after the first 500 or so articles describing our collective faults in general and my particular nastiness, one gets the point and I’ll make a confession: after a while you come to believe it. It’s rather like the cellulite you have at the back of your legs but can’t see—you know it must be there. In spite of all I know about the media, I cannot credit them with total fabrication—if so many people who have never spoken a word to me can dissect my being and attribute such vile characteristics to me I must have something that smells. The favourite comforting word of friends is “jealousy,” which, let’s face it, makes no sense when you are my age and in my situation. Who the hell can be jealous of a senior citizen bereft of husband and insofar as anyone notices them, an object of ridicule on several continents? But this time I had to read the press, listen to Mulcair and the debate in Parliament because this was germane to our travel plans.

I had sponsored an application for a temporary resident permit (TRP) for Conrad some time earlier, just as I had when it was granted in 2004 before the trial. I had been pestering our immigration lawyer Stephen Green, and in late April he told me it had been granted. We had permission to enter Canada. I was deliriously happy—for an hour. Conrad was not convinced. By now he was bottoming out. He had been magnificent inside prison for the first stint of 29 months. He had been extraordinary during the year between appeals trying to get a grip on our financial affairs and selling the house in Palm Beach. But this second prison stint was physically very difficult.

His cell built for one had three people stuffed in it and his bunk was a steel shelf in which he couldn’t sit up without hitting his head on the one above. There was an open toilet and sink and the steel door was noisily locked every night at 9:40. Sleep was minimal. He had hurt his knee and couldn’t walk much while it healed and was gobbling blood pressure pills for the hypertension developed in prison. His spirit never wavered and he never had any problems with inmates but his morale and health deteriorated. (Fortunately, he has a constitution like my little kuvasz Arpad—just about nothing stops either of them for long and they both rebound very fast. They have since bonded in a man-to-canine thing. Very touching really.)

After Mulcair had compared the granting of a TRP to Conrad with the denial of one to an American guilty of an attack on a policeman four decades ago, the debate just went downhill. (Actually, on watching an interview with the American, Gary Freeman, I found Freeman rather sympathetic, though I know nothing about his case.) I sat in our kitchen incredulous, watching various Canadian TV news stations poll the question of whether my husband should be allowed to return to Canada—the majority said “no.” I began my first drinking habit: the only alcohol I can manage without being very sick is Baileys Irish Cream put in cups of strong coffee fortified by additional 10 per cent coffee cream and lots of sweetener. That, together with Tylenol No. 2 or 3, makes a good cocktail and I was ready for it. I gulped it down reading the Globe and Mail’s article that suggested Conrad would not be allowed out of the U.S. upon release from prison and that he had only an expired U.K. passport (not true; he had a perfectly valid one) and would therefore be sent to an immigration holding centre. Where do people get their facts from?

On Tuesday, Conrad’s “friends” kicked in and started informing him by email about the debate in Parliament. They mean well, are probably very bright, but God protect me from young conservative intellectuals who want to be part of everything. Having been cautioned by our immigration lawyer to just keep quiet, avoid the press and let the procedure go through normal channels, I was not much taken with a front-page column in the National Post comparing Conrad to Lindsay Lohan, a comparison that can hardly be helpful in any situation. Now wound up by the emails he had received, a frantic Conrad managed to get to the prison telephone at 6:05 a.m. and called my dedicated black Samsung whose number is programmed into the prison computer. “I haven’t slept at all. The government will fold,” he said. “They are going to withdraw my TRP.” “No way,” I said, “that would be political interference.” “They can stall it by having an inquiry,” he countered. “I’m taking my blood pressure pills but I don’t know how much more of this I can take before I have a stroke.”

I’m the drama queen in this family. When Conrad worries about a stroke you know he is in difficulty. But outside prison walls what is there to be done but speak to him in that awful British schoolmistress voice I get at times like this, calmly alongside the recorded voice that continually interrupted our call with the completely unnecessary statement that “this is a call from a federal prison.” “You will be home on Friday,” I said, not believing a word of it. He called again 20 minutes later as agonized as before.

Of course the downside was not so impossible: we could go to the U.K., though we had no home there and playing Flying Dutchman was not appetizing. But reason had fled; the strain had Conrad kicking into darker scenarios. Now he worried that ICE would not release him. I called immigration lawyer Stephen Green: “Are we in trouble?” I asked. “It went through the bureaucrats,” he said, “and they saw no reason not to grant it as they had before. Non-violent crime, wife and family in Canada, a previous temporary permit. It will be fine.” Let me tell you, if it’s an immigration lawyer you need, you want Stephen Green. Calm, considerate, competent.

And what did it come down to after all, this fuss over him entering Canada. “This is a simple case of a double standard,” Mulcair had said in his Commons sally to the cheers of his caucus. “One set of standards for Conservative party insiders and another that applies to everyone else.” Well, probably so, but not in the way Mulcair saw it. Double standards mean one set of values for the chosen and less favourable ones for the unchosen. Morally wrong of course, but meanwhile this was a bouncing ball and we had no way of knowing at any point which group we were in.

Of course there would be “different” treatment for Conrad in one sense: how could there not be. His application was never going to be shoved in a manila file unnoticed. Conrad was no anonymous name on a TRP application like the thousands of others, including some with criminal records. Would the senior public servants in Citizenship and Immigration want him in Canada or not? Being well-known is great if you want a booking at Roy Thomson Hall but not so good if a civil servant decides this is too hot to handle. Being connected is only a guarantee of scrutiny and, in this case, of public scrutiny when someone in the civil service who was clearly opposed to the decision to give him a TRP leaked the information to the Globe and Mail in advance of Conrad’s return. Fashions in literature and special interest groups come and go and at this point in Western history, well-off white males are definitely not the flavour of the month.

The government had excelled in avoiding contact with me. Way back in June 2010 I had attended a small private birthday party for David Frum’s 50th outside of Toronto on a fairly remote farm, outdoor loos only, far from cameras. Frum’s good friend Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was placed at the same table with me. He was personally taken around the table to be introduced. As he was told, “And you must know Barbara Black,” his eyes remained open but anaesthetized, and he moved unblinkingly to the person next to me without a word. I was clearly a toxic area. Frankly, I perfectly understood Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s response to Mulcair that “it would be just as easy for us if Mr. Black were not allowed to come to Canada.” There was nothing in this issue that could win a single new vote for the Conservatives. I had been the guest of Arlene Perly Rae last April 25, just 10 days before Conrad’s release from prison, for the Politics and the Pen dinner in Ottawa. Mrs. Rae is a warm ebullient person of great charm in which she characteristically enveloped me. Mr. Rae remained carefully apart. I couldn’t blame him either. In Parliament, he did not oppose Conrad’s return, only mentioned that it set a worrying precedent.

I was leaving for Miami Thursday evening. By Wednesday my heart rate had gone for nearly 36 hours at around 45 beats a minute, probably lack of sleep, and that night it began descending lower. When it reached 40 and I was having trouble coping with spikes of compensating blood pressure I called a doctor. “I’ve got to fly,” I said, giving him my blood pressure readings. “And I’m losing my balance. What do I do?” We concocted something to calm me down out of old meds I had in the bottom drawer. Hoarding has value.

In the end it was a combination of institutional mistakes and human decency—not money or connections—that provided us both with our entry to Canada and freedom from press scrutiny. A Ms. Tracy Billingsley in the Bureau of Prisons told CBC that Conrad could be released on May 4. ICE officials were furious with this BOP leak and decided to make sure Conrad got out early in the day without press coverage; with no encouragement from us they created a decoy convoy of cars and flashing lights that led the media into downtown Miami while Conrad was in the white Chevy en route to the airport—the joy of unintended consequences. At the Toronto airport after Immigration Canada let my husband in, someone showed our driver an exit that required driving along runways—hopefully unused. And since we don’t possess any car in Toronto that hasn’t been modified for my dogs, we borrowed the grey Chrysler of a domestic employee, which was described by frustrated reporters as “nondescript” and attracted absolutely no attention when we approached our home.

Why did we get a TRP? Well, my husband met the criteria but more importantly, I think he was liked by some public servants. That’s the leg up that being known gave him, and that one could have gone either way.

Now I don’t care anymore about Mr. Mulcair who strikes me as a bottom-feeder, though I can’t help worrying a bit about Gary Freeman. I hope he’s getting a fair deal and that the spotlight helps rather than hinders his case. I’m feeding my husband all the nourishing food he didn’t get in the prison. His “chef” cellmate sent me his apologies for Conrad’s weight gain that has made his entire wardrobe temporarily too small and had me speeding out the day of his return for a jacket and trousers at Kingsport, a shop I had not previously known—but he’s already lost 13 lb. in the past week. He hasn’t got back enough strength in his leg yet to easily walk the dogs any length of time but that will come. I had to remind him how to use a Toronto telephone and how to drive a keyless car. It’s all new. I don’t know how long we have together at our time of life—though I am pretty damn sure he will have at least another 25 years of active work ahead of him. He still says I’m beautiful though I have lost great patches of hair all over my head and sometimes wonder if when the wind blows the baldness is revealed like those men who comb long bits over the empty scalp.

I look in the mirror and see an old woman applying Rogaine to her head. Then I see that old woman has a loving, funny and innocent husband standing right behind her. A man who has surmounted a rather horrid ordeal with dignity. He’s home, we’re together and frankly that (and some hair regrowth) is about all I could ever want.