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PASSING OF AN UNSUNG CANADIAN HERO

Some people say that “things tend to happen in threes”. That saying came to mind last week when I read of the death of John Sheardown.

Just last fall, Canada announced the suspension of diplomatic relations with Iran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Canada. That caused many, myself included, to reflect back on the so-called “Canadian Caper” involving the Canadian-engineered rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran.

Soon thereafter, Hollywood’s dramatized depiction of the Canadian Caper was released. That movie provided a thoroughly U.S. focused, highly fictionalized version of events (to my knowledge, most of the events of last 45 minutes or so of that film never took place as depicted).

And now, Mr. Sheardown has passed away at the age of 88. He was, without a doubt, the unsung hero of the Canadian Caper.

The C.B.C. described the situation in Tehran at that time as follows. “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.”

That November 4th, a number of American diplomats on the embassy premises were forced to flee into the streets on foot. Some headed towards the British embassy. Prevented, by further volatile demonstrations, from accessing that safe haven, they were forced to hide out in a series of private residences as the political situation disintegrated around them.

Contact was made with a Canadian immigration officer named John Sheardown, who arranged for the fugitive Americans to get to his Tehran home, unnoticed. From there, two of the six were smuggled to the home of the Canadian Ambassador to Iran, Ken Taylor, while the other four remained at the home of the Sheardowns.

The risk both hosts took in involving themselves directly in protecting the Americans was, of course, extremely high – their lives (and those of their spouses) were very plainly at stake had they been caught. The ongoing hostage crisis, in which 52 others taken from the embassy were held for over a year, had local and international tensions at an absolute peak. It was a long 79 days before the escape of the six Americans secretly biding their time in the Canadians’ care played out.

From the moment the Americans’ call reached Sheardown, he was resolute in his determination to protect them. He has been variously quoted as having said, when he received the initial call from Bob Anders, “Hell, yes” and “Why didn’t you call sooner?”

According to the Globe & Mail, Sheardown and his wife, Zena, had only been in Tehran for two months at that point and it seems had been under surveillance the entire time as the political situation deteriorated. That didn’t sway him, and he initially brought the entire group of American fugitives into his home.

Sheardown engaged in a number of tricks and ploys to hide the fact of the fugitives’ presence in his home, including buying the necessary volume of groceries at multiple stores and taking the additional garbage to work for disposal.

While Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor got (and gets) most of the accolades for the covert plot to “exfiltrate” the six Americans, it would never have happened without Sheardown’s initiative and verve. Sadly, there was no mention whatsoever of Sheardown and his wife in the recent movie, Argo.

One of the other American fugitives, Mark Lijek, was quoted in the Globe & Mail as having said, of Sheardown, “… without him, I don’t know what would have happened to us. If the reception had been more tepid… we would have likely tried to make it on our own for a few more days until we were caught. The way he took our call, it wasn’t an invitation, it was more like a command.”

Sheardown seems to have been a bit of a maverick, demonstrated by his later refusal to accept the Order of Canada unless his wife was also recognized. That was yet another situation in which he prevailed largely by force of will.

John Sheardown was born in 1924 near Windsor, Ontario and served in the Canadian Air Force flying Lancaster bombers during the Second World War, later also serving in South Korea. His pursuits in diplomatic posts took him to London, New Delhi, Tehran, Glasgow, and Los Angeles.

He is survived by his wife, Zena and numerous siblings, children, and grandchildren. They will, I think, be pleased to see that both the Globe & Mail and the New York Times ran obituaries emphasizing the crucial role he played in harbouring and extricating the six American fugitives in early 1980.

Robert Smithson is a labour and employment lawyer, and operates Smithson Employment Law in Kelowna. For more information about his practice, or to subscribe to You Work Here, visit www.smithsonlaw.ca. This subject matter is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.