CBC Digital Archives

1980: Canadian Caper helps Americans escape Tehran

In 1979 a cataclysmic revolution shook Iran, creating the world's first Islamic republic and altering the balance of power in the Middle East. With the widely despised Shah of Iran forced into exile, spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini returned to oversee the country's transformation. But peace was still elusive as student protesters overwhelmed the United States embassy in Tehran, taking hostages and launching a diplomatic crisis. CBC Digital Archives presents a series of clips about revolutionary Iran.

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On a cool November afternoon in 1979, Iranian militants overtake the American Embassy in Tehran, capturing more than 70 hostages. Amidst the chaos, six Americans quietly escape and are given sanctuary at the Canadian Embassy. As this news report illustrates, Canada's role in the so-called Canadian Caper is only revealed three months later when they assist the Americans to safely flee Tehran. The incident brings about an outpouring of pro-Canada sentiment in the United States and makes Canadian Ambassador Kenneth Taylor an instant star.
• During the 1970s the Shah of Iran faced a growing opposition led by exiled spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini. With the backing of the U.S., the Shah tenuously remained in power until 1979 when, in response to Khomeini's call for his overthrow, he left Iran. When the Shah was temporarily allowed into the U.S. for medical reasons, Iranian militants were furious at this show of support. In response, they stormed the American Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, holding diplomats hostage for 444 days.

• Initially, the ongoing Tehran hostage crisis relegated the plight of the fugitives to a backseat on U.S. President Jimmy Carter's agenda. But pressure from Prime Minister Joe Clark and Foreign Affairs Minister Flora MacDonald brought about U.S. co-operation, particularly from a group of CIA operatives who had discreetly slipped into Iran.

• Under the direction of Taylor, the CIA and Canadian diplomats produced new Canadian identities for the Americans, including passports and drivers' licences.

• After scouting Tehran's Mehrabad airport, the Americans were disguised as filmmakers and smuggled onto a plane to Frankfurt. Once the six had successfully escaped, a sign posted on Canada's Embassy in Tehran read, "temporarily closed." Fearful of the danger they would face once news of the "caper" surfaced, Taylor and the remaining Canadian diplomats left Tehran as well.

• One of the lesser-known players in the Canadian Caper is John Sheardown, a top Canadian immigration official in Iran at the time. In fact, Sheardown was the first to be contacted by the Americans upon their escape, providing them immediate entry in the Canadian Embassy. Moreover, four of the Americans found refuge at Sheardown's home while the remaining two stayed with Taylor.

• Despite the shroud of secrecy, Jean Pelletier, Washington correspondent for the Montreal newspaper, La Presse, was the first to piece together the unfolding events in Tehran. "The Canadians were as skittery as barnyard cattle before an earthquake," he later wrote. Though his managing editor urged him to print the story immediately, Pelletier was concerned for the safety of those involved and refused -- until Taylor returned home on Jan. 27, 1980.

• Taylor received countless letters and symbols of gratitude from those in the United States who praised him as a hero. On March 6, 1980, President Ronald Reagan presented Taylor with a Congressional Gold Medal in commemoration of the Ambassador's "valour, ingenuity and steady nerves." That same year, he also received the Order of Canada.

• In 1981, a movie recounting the events of the Canadian Caper was filmed in Toronto, with Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent playing the lead role of Taylor. Another film, the award-winning Argo, was produced in 2012. It was partially based on a book by CIA agent Tony Mendez that detailed the CIA's role in masterminding the Americans' escape.

• After returning from Tehran, Kenneth Taylor spent three years as Canada's consul-general in New York City before leaving the public sector altogether in 1984. With American citizenship in hand, Taylor currently resides in Manhattan.

Also on January 28:
1914: Suffragette leader Nellie McClung stages a mock parliament in which men had to ask women for the right to vote. Exactly two years later, Manitoba becomes the first province to give women the right to vote.
1973: A final ceasefire goes into effect in the Vietnam War.
1988: The Supreme Court of Canada rules 5-2 that Canada's abortion law violates the rights of pregnant women to "security of the person" under the Charter of Rights. The majority decision called the law "manifestly unfair."
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Jan. 29, 1980
Host: Knowlton Nash
Reporter: David Halton
Duration: 2:34

Last updated: October 24, 2014

Page consulted on October 24, 2014

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