As It Happens

As it Happened: The Archive Edition - The Neighbours Episode

After militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of Americans hostage, Canada stepped in to help its neighbour — in a risky and covert operation to sneak some of the captives out of the country.
Tehran, Iran, spring 1980. The slogan is the same in both English and Farsi. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)
Listen27:28

This story, based on an interview from our archives, was originally published on July 7, 2017.


Almost 40 years ago, the strength of Canada's strong neighbourly relationship with the United States was tested quite like never before or since.

On Nov. 4, 1979, an angry mob of militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, demanding the return of the Washington-backed Shah to stand trial. He had fled the country and was at the time receiving medical treatment in New York. The revolutionaries captured most of the diplomats in the compound and proceeded to hold them hostage — a crisis that would persist for 444 days.

But not for all the diplomats. Six who escaped the compound managed to evade recapture. Of course, they needed help — and fast.
 
Enter Canada — in the form of chief Canadian immigration officer, John Sheardown, and the Canadian ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor.

Militant students chant anti-American slogans inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, 1980. (Peter Bregg/The Canadian Press)
For months, the two men harboured the six diplomats in their residences. And with the help of the CIA and the Canadian government, an elaborate, covert operation was hatched.

"The Canadian Caper," as it was known, is the stuff of Hollywood legend — in more ways than one. It involved presenting the diplomats as a Canadian film crew, scouting locations for a fictitious Hollywood film called Argo.

Of course, a fictionalized account of the operation itself later became an Academy Award-winning movie.

ABC's Nightline coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980. (ABC News/The Associated Press)
Once the diplomats arrived safely home to the United States, As it Happens spoke with Canada's foreign minister at the time, Flora MacDonald, on Jan. 29, 1980.

She described to As it Happens host Barbara Frum the challenge then-prime minister Joe Clark's government faced — of keeping Canada's efforts on behalf of the diplomats a secret. Here is some of that conversation.

Barbara Frum: I'm sure that you're feeling that, in some senses, this couldn't have happened at a better time for you and for your party. But what's it been like to keep quiet about it for three months?

Flora MacDonald: Well, the whole development started, as you know, long before there was any thought of an election. And it has been something that has preoccupied me and preoccupied the members of my department, of our cabinet, of the prime minister for the three months. It's certainly been a lesson in self-discipline as to what you say and don't say. And sometimes it's been very difficult to take some of the criticism that's been levelled at us — that we weren't doing more.

If ever there was a person who acted in the most tremendous way on Canada's behalf abroad, it has been Ambassador Taylor.- Flora MacDonald, former foreign affairs minister

BF: I hope you won't mind if I don't get too excited about your cool nerve because I'm fastened on Mr. [Ken] Taylor's.

FM: That's right. And if ever there was a person who acted in the most tremendous way on Canada's behalf abroad, it has been Ambassador Taylor. 

BF: All those interviews he gave — about keeping a low profile and how he doesn't want to do anything to do jeapordize the hostages over at the other embassy ...

 
Flora MacDonald addresses the United Nations regarding the Iran hostage crisis in on Dec. 30, 1979 in New York. (M. Grant/United Nations/The Canadian Press)

FM: Knowing he was sitting with six of them fairly close to him.

BF: So they had taken on a Canadian identity in case there were ever questioned there?

FM: Oh yes. They were in the home, the residence. 

BF: Did they go out on forged Canadian passports?

FM: Not forged. They went out on Canadian passports which had been issued specially by order-in-council. 

BF: So quite a number of people in Ottawa knew about this too?

Cover for the book on which Argo the film was based (Viking/The Associated Press)

FM: A number of people, not quite a number. It was a very limited number. It was not I — or it was not our party — that broke this story. So it was not a question of us trying to gain political ammunition from it. 

BF: If La Presse hadn't broken the story, are you saying that you were not going to mention it either?

FM: We were not going to. I had every opportunity to do so last night, if I had wanted to at the press conference, and I did not. And furthermore, yesterday, when I was speaking to [Opposition Leader)] Mr. [Pierre] Trudeau and he raised this matter with me, I informed him that we would not be making any reference ourselves to the six Americans who had come out because we did not want to do anything that might endanger the American hostages still there. It was just never our intention to bring it out.

Ken Taylor, Canadian Ambassador to Iran, meets with journalists outside the Canadian Embassy in Paris on Jan. 31, 1980. (The Associated Press)

BF: And what was his response to that?

FM: One of surprise.

BF: Ms. MacDonald, thank you very, very much for talking to us.

FM: You're quite welcome.

BF: This is going to be a movie, isn't it?

FM: [laughs] It sure is.

You can hear more of Barbara Frum's Jan. 29, 1980, interview with Flora MacDonald — as well as the following stories, on this week's 'Neighbours' episode of As it Happened: The Archive Edition:

  • Washington, DC-based radio DJ Tom Gauger describes the outpouring of love for Canada following the release of the six American hostages and the endless requests from his listeners to hear "O Canada"
     
  • The national chairman of the Canadian Liberation Movement explains why he wants all Americans to leave Canada and the motivation behind the movement's "Yankee Go Home" campaign
     
  • A Republican Congressman makes the case for building a fence between Canada and the United States
     
  • Texas lawyer Gary Shamoun shares what happened when he brought his donkey to court as evidence in a dispute with his neighbour

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