As It Happens

Remembering the time Barbara Frum called up a gunman holding hostages at a Toronto bank

During her storied career at CBC Radio, Barbara Frum interviewed a lot of people — artists, celebrities, world leaders and, one time in 1977, a man holding 11 bank employees hostage with a sawed-off shotgun.
Barbara Frum interviewed everyone from world leaders to bank hostages during her time hosting As It Happens. (CBC Archives)

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During her storied career at CBC Radio, Barbara Frum interviewed a lot of people — artists, celebrities, world leaders and, one time, a man holding 11 bank employees hostage with a sawed-off shotgun.

As the co-host of As It Happens between 1971 and 1981, Frum helped revolutionize current-affairs radio in Canada. To mark the occasion, we dug into the archives to find one long-lost gem. 

On March 21, 1977, Robert McLagan held 11 employees at Toronto's Banque Canadienne Nationale hostage for nearly 12 hours. 

Frum and her producers were able to get McLagan, one of his hostages and a police officer on the line as the situation was unfolding — even giving CBC Radio listeners the chance to hear the beginning of a negotiation that would eventually end in a peaceful surrender.

'I want a C-130, lady, and that's all'

"Hello, my name is Barbara Frum. Can you tell me what situation you're in?" Frum asks McLagan when she gets him on the line.

"I'm in a pretty good situation, really, as long as these cowboys out here don't try anything, you know, funny," he replies, his voice calm and steady. "There's no way the police can get at me, unless they can snipe me, which I doubt."

"What are you in there for?" Frum asks.

"I want C-130 Hercules aircraft," he tells her straightforwardly. "I don't want to own it; I just want to borrow it."

"Where are you going?" Frum asks

"A little drive down to Africa," he says.

He explains that he wants to fly to Uganda to see his "pal" Idi Amin Dada, the military leader who seized control of the country in a coup. 

"I've never met the man, but I'm a fan of his,"  McLagan — who claims to have fought as a mercenary in the Congo — explains.

She presses him about where he got the idea to take hostages and why he was targeting this particular bank.

"I want a C-130, lady, and that's all. The rest is incidental."

Hostage: 'I could be better'

Frum asks McLagan if she can speak to one of the hostages. Without hesitation, he hands over the phone to a woman who identifies herself as Lois, an assistant accountant at the bank.

"How are you doing there, Lois?" Frum asks.

"Well, I could be better, I'd say," she replies with a giggle.

I just hope nobody gets him excited because then, you know, you never know what people will do.- Lois, hostage

Lois, too, sounds calm and stable. She assures Frum that while one woman passed out from fright, nobody has been harmed. 

"He sent me down to get everybody's  lunches and water, so he's treating us very well, and he said he didn't want to hurt anybody," she said.

The hostage-taker told Barbara Frum he wanted to fly to Uganda to see then-president Idi Amin Dada. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"He sounds very calm right now," Frum notes. 

Lois agrees, but adds: "I just hope nobody gets him excited because then, you know, you never know what people will do. And since he's the only one with a gun and we're all up here, you know, I just hope everybody gives him what he wants."

"Is he actually holding a gun on you?" Frum asks. 

"Well, he has it out, but it's not pointed in my direction," she replies. "I don't think he'd hurt me."

'Does this chap want to speak to a police officer?'

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, As It Happens producers are able to get a police officer on the line. He's identified as Staff Supt. Webster.

Frum connects the officer to the hostage. Once he assesses that she's OK, he asks her: "Does this chap want to speak to a police officer?"

Lois hands the phone back to McLagan, who identifies himself as "the fellow with the gun."

Those are innocent people there, and we'll co-operate in every way we can with you.- Staff Supt. Webster, Toronto Police

Webster listens as McLagan lays out his demands for a police escort to a military aircraft to take him to Uganda. 

"Do you need all those people, Bob, with you there?" Webster says.

"Those are innocent people there, and we'll co-operate in every way we can with you. We want to keep the situation calm and cool without any tricks, and I can assure you of that, but I think you should release some of those people there who may have illnesses that we're not aware of. Would you agree with that?"

Barbara Frum and co-host Alan Maitland on the set of CBC Radio's As It Happens. Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of Frum's death. (CBC Archives)

McLagan agrees he'll let people go if they're sick, but otherwise says he'd like to "keep things the way they are for now."

"I'll maybe release them a little bit later," he says. "But I see your boys out here getting a little bit psyched up, but the front door's unlocked and I've got a damned good vantage point where I can see the door and I can see the stairwell. So outside of a gung-ho charge or anything, there's not really a hell of a lot you can do."

The interview ends there, but according to the Toronto Star archives, the suspect eventually surrendered quietly and nobody was harmed.


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