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Saturday, August 07, 1999Black's fight is with Blair, Ottawa hints
PM maintains peerage decision based on protocol
Joel-Denis Bellavance and Joan Bryden
National Post, with files from Southam News and Reuters
OTTAWA - Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, rejected suggestions yesterday that he advised the Queen against granting newspaper proprietor Conrad Black a life peerage because he was dissatisfied with the coverage he has received in the National Post, one of Mr. Black's newspapers.
And federal officials hinted they will respond to a lawsuit Mr. Black has filed against the prime minister by arguing he is suing the wrong head of government and that responsibility for the lost peerage lay with Tony Blair, the British prime minister.
Mr. Chretien refused to comment on details of the lawsuit Mr. Black's lawyers filed against him on Thursday. But he maintained that his decision to block Mr. Black's elevation to the British House of Lords was based on established government protocol.
"While I will not comment on the specific allegations in the statement of claim, I want to make it clear I was guided in this matter by longstanding Canadian policy and custom," Mr. Chretien said in a statement.
"The Nickle Resolution, passed in 1919 by the House of Commons, directed that the practice of bestowing titles of honour by foreign governments on Canadians be discontinued."
Mr. Black has asked the court to declare Mr. Chretien's intervention in his appointment an abuse of power, saying the prime minister of Canada had no right to advise the Queen on conferring honours to British subjects or dual British-Canadian citizens.
The lawsuit, filed on Thursday in Ontario Superior Court, also alleges that the government of Canada negligently misled Mr. Black by first telling him he would be entitled to a peerage if he first obtained dual citizenship. Mr. Black is seeking $25,000 in damages in addition to the declarations.
The issue of Mr. Chretien's motivations could play a key role in any court proceedings: Mr. Black's statement of claim recounts a June 17 telephone conversation with the prime minister in which Mr. Chretien complained he had been treated unkindly in the National Post, which has run a series of articles on job creation grants that were distributed in Mr. Chretien's riding.
Mr. Chretien has vehemently denied that the action he took was personally motivated, and to back those claims his office re-issued copies of the Nickle Resolution, the 1919 parliamentary motion that asks the Crown not to bestow titles on British subjects living in Canada.
That resolution was never passed into law, but the Prime Minister's Office also released reaffirmations of the policy created in 1968 by the Liberal government of Lester B. Pearson and in 1988 by the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.
Oddly, the 1968 version appears to undercut the government's case, saying foreign honours can be conferred on "Canadian citizens who have dual nationality," which Mr. Black had obtained after taking advice from Canadian officials upon learning he had been chosen for a peerage. The protocol further advises that honours may be conferred "in recognition of an exceptional achievement or service" in the country granting the honour.
The prime minister himself spent yesterday playing golf at the Grand-Mere golf club -- one of the businesses that has been at the centre of the Post's articles on grants in Mr. Chretien's riding -- and declined to comment further on the lawsuit. The matter, he said, was before the courts.
Sources in Ottawa said the Prime Minister's Office is considering going outside the government in its search for lawyers to defend the case. Even so, the government is poised to argue that Mr. Blair is primarily responsible for Mr. Black's loss, sources said.
Dale Gibson, a constitutional lawyer in Edmonton, noted that Mr. Blair chose to seek Mr. Chretien's opinion on the matter. Mr. Blair also chose to accept Mr. Chretien's request that the appointment be suspended.
"How is that a violation of the prime minister's powers? Surely, he can request any [foreign] government to do anything," Mr. Gibson said, adding that foreign governments are not obligated to accept Mr. Chretien's requests.
"If that request is in line with established practice, and a resolution of the House of Commons, where's the legal violation?. . . If they're just saying he doesn't have the power to do it, I think they're wrong. He's got the power to request any government to do anything."
Mr. Gibson said Mr. Black's lawsuit should have been filed in a British court and been aimed at the U.K. government. Mr. Black should be asking Mr. Blair: "Why are you listening to this guy in Canada when I'm a British subject?"
However, opposition MPs applauded Mr. Black's decision to sue the prime minister, saying they hoped court proceedings would finally uncover the prime minister's motives.
Monte Solberg, the Reform MP for Medicine Hat, Alta., said Mr. Chretien engaged in "petty politics" by advising the Queen not to grant Mr. Black a life peerage.
"Only a very small man would deny somebody their peerage like this . . . I'm glad that Mr. Black is pushing the issue so that we can find out what was sort of the basis for this decision to block this peerage. When we do discover, it will be nothing but small-minded petty politics from a prime minister because the newspaper coverage of him was not always favourable," he said.
Added Jim Jones, a Tory MP from Markham, Ont.: "If [Mr. Chretien] thought the newspaper was unfair and unjust and not telling the truth, he had the right to sue, but he has not done that. He is trying to muzzle the press." Peter Atkinson, vice-president and general counsel for Hollinger Inc., Mr. Black's company, said yesterday that Mr. Black was "outraged" by Mr. Chretien's actions.
"The reason he's [Mr. Black] launched the lawsuit is because he's been mistreated by the prime minister, who's unlawfully interfered in his rights as a British citizen," Mr. Atkinson said. "The prime minister shouldn't be allowed, because he's mad at the National Post coverage or for any other reason, to interfere with somebody's rights."
Mr. Black's lawsuit says the Montreal-born newspaper owner was subjected to "significant embarrassment and inconvenience" by the Canadian intervention in his elevation.
He had been assured by Roy MacLaren, Canada's High Commissioner in London, that there was no legal obstacle to him receiving a peerage, according to the statement of claim. The British government was further advised by Canadian officials the peerage could go ahead if Mr. Black was to obtain British citizenship and agree not to use the title in Canada.
Mr. Black quickly sought and received British citizenship with the assistance of Mr. Blair and anticipated no further problem.
But, two days before his impending appointment, he learned the process had been halted at Mr. Chretien's request: The prime minister's advisors said they were concerned the appointment would violate the Nickle Resolution, and recommended against the appointment.
Mr. Chretien told Mr. Black in a telephone call he blocked the elevation because he needed to review the issue.
Three weeks later, the Privy Council Office sent a letter to Mr. Black's lawyers saying that the government's stance would not change.
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