Conrad Black Creates Controversy in Calgary

Bob Blakey and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

My fellow “gangrenous limb” Bob Blakey (left) and I raise a glass to the memory of Bob Edwards at his grave in Union Cemetery

I was one of the “gangrenous limbs.” That’s how Conrad Black characterized my fellow locked-out Calgary Herald employees and me in March 2000 when he came to Calgary for a bank shareholders’ meeting. Black at the time was chairman and chief executive of Hollinger, the company that owned the Herald. My Herald colleagues and I had been walking the picket line for four months. Union leader Andy Marshall asked Black why he was insulting his once-valued employees. Black responded: “We’re not. We’re amputating gangrenous limbs. If they have the grace of conversion and want to function as employees instead of staging an NDP coup d’état in the newsroom, they’ll be welcome.” Later Black told The New York Times he expected the labour dispute to drag on for two more years “and then we won’t have to keep their jobs anymore.”

The dispute continued for another three months, until 30 June 2000, and ended with the decertification of the union. Of the 93 employees left on the picket line, only eight opted to return to the newsroom. The rest, including me, accepted buyouts. We couldn’t see a future for ourselves in a non-unionized newsroom run by anti-union managers.

Since that time, this former media baron, Lord Black, has left the newspaper business, served a three-year jail sentence in the United States for mail fraud and obstruction of justice, and written a few books. I, too, have written a few books. That’s why both of us were invited to attend the Bob Edwards Award Gala in Calgary this past week. It’s the largest literary event held annually in Western Canada; a fund-raising dinner organized by the Calgary Public Library Foundation. The event is named after Calgary’s first media celebrity: Bob Edwards, the early 20th century publisher of the Eye Opener, a scandal sheet that broke all the conventional rules of journalism by running humour, gossip and satirical commentary instead of news. Black was invited to the gala to be recognized for his outspoken views, most recently as a critic of the American justice system. I was there to hold court as one of the 37 table hosts.

Some of my writer friends were appalled when they heard Black would be the recipient of this year’s Edwards award. Why would the Library Foundation want to honour this Montreal-born Anglophile who renounced his Canadian citizenship to qualify for a seat in the British House of Lords? Why would the foundation want to add Black’s name to a list of distinguished Canadian recipients that includes Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton and Mordecai Richler? The gala was sold out so there was no way the foundation could disappoint its paying guests by cancelling the event. But my friends hoped the foundation members would eventually come to their senses and acknowledge that choosing Black was a mistake.

The Herald’s Stephen Hunt had an article in the paper before the gala, documenting the annoyance of those who felt Black was a poor choice for the award. The most vocal and most articulate critic was Drew Anderson, editor of FastForward Weekly, who wrote in a blog that Black was the kind of individual who would have been “squarely in Bob’s crosshairs.”

I did give some thought to declining the foundation’s invitation. As a former Herald staff writer, I felt that a totally avoidable labour dispute in 1999-2000 had caused lasting and irreparable damage to what was once one of Western Canada’s finest dailies. But after further deliberation I decided to attend the event because I’m a huge supporter of the Library, and because I could write about the gala afterwards. And I’m glad I did because at one point in his speech Black was booed. But I’m not putting what I have written on the Internet. Instead I am making it available privately to interested readers for 99 cents. You won’t read about it elsewhere because Black’s 34-minute speech wasn’t reported on in the Calgary newspapers. Mine, which I title “Conrad Black: A Man of Too Many Words,” is the only account you will find anywhere. Just click on the “Buy Now” button below and I will have it securely delivered to your email inbox in PDF format.
Buy Now Button

Calgary Herald strike chapter from “Leaving Dublin”

My publisher, RMB | Rocky Mountains Books, has kindly agreed to have the entire Calgary Herald strike chapter from “Leaving Dublin” showcased in Frank Moher’s fine online magazine, You can read it by clicking here.

David Climenhaga’s “Leaving Dublin” review

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, my friend, fellow blogger, and former colleague at the Calgary Herald, has written a generous review of “Leaving Dublin,” posted both to his politically influential, widely-read Alberta Diary blog and to the equally well-read website.

The focus of the review, as one might expect from a trade unionist who walked a picket line with me for eight months, is on the chapter dealing with the now almost-forgotten Calgary Herald strike of 1999-2000. And, given that we were comrades-in-arms, you might expect him to agree with everything I have to say about that fractious labour dispute, its origins and its aftermath.

Not necessarily so. We witnessed a recent situation where Edward Greenspan, a prominent Toronto criminal lawyer who represented Conrad Black during his 2007 fraud trial in Chicago, was moved to write a lengthy rebuttal in The Globe and Mail taking issue with what he calls Black’s “flawed” account of the trial in his recently published memoirs. Greenspan says that Black’s fanciful recounting of the legal proceedings serves as a reminder of “how seldom an accused person actually grasps what is going on in court. Most defendants in a criminal trial realize that they shouldn’t expect to understand the process. That is what hiring experienced criminal counsel is all about.”

I could have been similarly guilty of not grasping what went on when the owners of the Calgary Herald (one of whom happened to be Conrad Black) forced us to take strike action in support of our quest to obtain a first collective agreement for the Herald newsroom. If David had written the same chapter – and at one point we actually did discuss the possibility of collaborating on a book about the strike – I suspect he would have been considerably less restrained than I was in describing some of the principal players and their actions.

But I am glad to see from David’s review that we are both on the same page in terms of how we recall this pivotal event in our lives. The book we hoped to write never materialized because the publisher we approached did not want to risk being sued. But I am happy that another publisher, the estimable RMB | Rocky Mountain Books, considered the story important enough to warrant at least a chapter in my book of memoirs.

Solidarity forever

Singing "Solidarity Forever" on the Calgary Herald picket line, November 1999, with yours truly on accordion.

I have held memberships in several unions over the course of my working life – writers’ unions, musicians’ unions, broadcasters’ unions – yet I never considered myself a trade unionist until I joined forces with my journalistic colleagues to bring a union into the hitherto non-unionized newsroom of the Calgary Herald.

That organizing initiative began 13 years ago and – though it ultimately ended in defeat – I look back upon it now as one of the most fulfilling experiences of my career. I had worked at the Herald for 24 years as a staff writer, and the union drive gave me a sense of empowerment I had never felt before as an employee. I cover the story in some detail in a chapter of my memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing My Way from Ireland to Canada, just published by the estimable RMB | Rocky Mountain Books. The labour action I describe was kindled in a cauldron of repressed anger and frustration, gleamed for an instant as a flame of hope and shared purpose, and finally was extinguished for reasons beyond the control of those of us who dearly wanted to keep it burning.

It happened during a time, in the late 1990s, when daily newspapers were no longer what they had been for 100 years: a guaranteed source of profit, a licence to print money as we used to say. Now they were printing in red ink, losing advertisers to television, and losing readers – especially younger readers – to the blandishments of the newly arrived World Wide Web.

The Herald came through these industry perils relatively unscathed. Because it is located in one of the more affluent cities in Canada, the newspaper continued to generate profits of between $30 and $40 million annually while its sister papers in the Southam (now, Postmedia) chain were posting total annual losses of more than $150 million. However, the Southam bosses could not sit idly by while several of their holdings suffered financially. So they siphoned profits from the Herald and ordered the paper to cut costs.

It was not long before we felt the direct impact of these cuts in the Herald newsroom. First we had a round of voluntary layoffs. Then we were told that expense accounts and travel budgets were being shaved. Finally – after more layoffs and some changes in corporate ownership and senior Herald management – we were told that our primary purpose was no longer to produce award-winning journalism, but to keep advertisers, government leaders and corporate clients happy. We were now to view ourselves as “content providers.” Before, we had thought of ourselves as the newspaper equivalent of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. Now, we were playing in a kazoo band. When we tried to express our concerns to management, we were told they had no interest in listening to us as a group. Dignity went out the window, along with respect. That was the point at which we asked the union – the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) of Canada – for help.

The CEP reps warned us that a first contract would not be easy to obtain. It would take at least 18 months of tough bargaining, and we would have to fight hard for every clause that was not about management rights. But at the end of the day we would have what most major newsrooms in Canada already had: an equitable agreement with a legally mandated grievance procedure and guaranteed rights and protections for the employees.

We never achieved our goal. Weak provincial labour laws – no compulsory first-contract arbitration, no anti-scab legislation – and an unyielding employer combined to keep us from getting a first collective agreement. After an eight-month lockout and strike, our union local was dissolved and most of the 93 journalists who had walked the picket line for the duration opted not to return to work.

Some people had told us we were crazy to take strike action against the company. “You are jumping off a cliff,” they said. But we felt it was the only tool we had left to bring the company to the table to deal with our grievances. There are some battles that you fight, not because you think you can win, but because you know it is the right thing to do. The defenders of the Alamo – who as legend holds opted to stay and fight – could have gotten on their horses and ridden away. We could have done likewise but chose not to. This was our hill to die on.

Though the outcome was dispiriting, the experience for me was gratifying. Through it all, I gained a deeper appreciation for the collective efforts that had led to previous generations of unionized employees obtaining benefits that we now take for granted: an eight-hour day, five-day week, minimum wages, workplace health and safety regulations, unemployment insurance, paid vacations and company pension plans.

The Herald has moved on and so have I. But nobody has told this story before and it is an insider story that demands to be told. That is why I have included it in my memoirs. Maybe it will provide food for thought for – among others – those construction industry leaders who are currently asking the Alberta government to make the province’s already weak labour laws even weaker.

Leaving Dublin is available from and wherever else fine books are sold.

This post also appears on