Ken Taylor: The right man at the right time

This article originally appeared in Canadian Fabric Magazine, Vol. 1, published January, 2014.

On November 4, 1979, during the Iranian Revolution, a group of students stormed the American embassy in Tehran, holding 52 people hostage for 444 days. Unbeknownst to the revolutionaries, six American citizens working in a nearby consulate escaped, seeking refuge in two houses under the protection of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.

The event was heavily fictionalized in Argo, Ben Affleck’s Best Picture Award-winning account of the “Canadian Caper.”

A man of instinct, when Taylor was informed of their plight, he didn’t blink an eye. Act now. Let them in.

“It’s my interpretation of Canada. It was the right thing to do,” says Taylor, now 78, sitting in the sofa of his suite at Toronto’s Park Hyatt Hotel. He contacted the Canadian government, then led by Joe Clark’s newly-elected Progressive Conservatives. To ensure their safe return, Canadian passports, birth certificates and driver’s licenses were printed.

Taylor, wearing grey slacks and a white dress shirt, leans forward as though he’s about the reveal state secrets. “Imagine we’d said ‘no’ because we were putting our own staff in jeopardy and Australia took them instead. How would Canadians feel? It wouldn’t have reflected the valour of those who fought in World War II.”

“Ken went beyond his letter of instruction,” says Trent University professor Robert Wright, author of Our Man in Tehran, which Taylor considers the definitive account of Canada’s involvement in the crisis. “He took the measure of the situation, applied his own knowledge and took it forward. He had an almost uncanny instinct for where things were moving.”

He clearly does. When offered his first ambassador post in 1977, Taylor chose Iran. Change was on the horizon, he thought.

Born in 1934 in Calgary, Taylor grew up wanting to cross borders, to see all that was new and strange. That interest was first piqued by family car trips down the west coast of the United States. After high school, he set his sights on Toronto’s Victoria College. “In those days, Ontario loomed large. It was the dominant geographic presence and there was this sense in the west that we were just living for the benefit of Ontario.” He wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

After graduating, he travelled to Europe, still in the midst of post-war reconstruction, and did graduate studies at Berkeley, where he met his future wife, Patricia, a PhD in bacteriology. San Francisco was a head-office town — IBM, Bethlehem Steel, Levi’s — and although there were job offers, Taylor instead joined the Canadian Foreign Service.

Married in 1960, they set off for Taylor’s first diplomatic posting in Guatemala, where Canada maintained minimal trade interests. “When you were starting out, they never listened to your preferences. The trade commission service at that time was more military than the military.”

Things have changed within the Foreign Service, especially gender equality. In 1960, diplomatic spouses weren’t allowed to work. Taylor, knowing that his bride, now a doctor, wanted a career of her own, joked that his own diplomatic career would be short-lived. But in Guatemala, a Canadian precedent was set when she worked at the Institute of Nutrition and Infection. With every posting — Detroit, Pakistan, London and Ottawa — Patricia Taylor was published in various journals and became one of the world’s leading epidemiologists.

Despite her career, she was essential to Taylor’s diplomatic duties. Throughout the hostage crisis, she worked at the Blood Services Institute, coming home at night through violent demonstrations, knowing that two of the American were seeking refuge in their home, a modest building adorned with a Canadian flag.

In Argo, which focuses on the CIA’s missions to rescue the six Americans, Patricia Taylor is played Paige Leong, while Victor Garber portrayed Ken. Taylor, who long-ago gave up the Coke-bottle spectacles Garber wore in the film, enjoyed the Canadian actor’s but wishes he had more to work with. “I became very good at opening and closing doors and pouring wine,” he laughed.

Unlike his celluloid counterpart, Taylor is not the passive character in the film. After Argo’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Taylor — who, with insult added to injury, was not invited — voiced his displeasure over the film’s treatment of Canada, especially the post-script, which claimed the CIA did all the work. In full damage control, Affleck called Taylor at his home in New York.

The post-script had to go, Taylor told Affleck, or else Argo distributor Time-Warner would be in a lot of trouble with Canada. “When I’m thinking of a boycott, I’m thinking it’ll be my family and three friends,” he jokes. Taylor’s modesty is always on display.

“His instinct for where Canadians stood are still spot on,” says Wright. Taylor later met with Affleck, who asked the former ambassador to rewrite the post-script, removing the gross historical revisionism.

To further set the record straight, a new documentary, Our Man in Tehran, based on Robert Wright’s book, premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Producer Elena Semikina says the film is not meant to compete with Argo, but to offer a more complete picture of the Iran Hostage Crisis. “Ben Affleck created a fantastically entertaining film which drew a great deal of attention to an important moment in history, but because of its importance it should also be produced with historical accuracy,” she says.

Working closely with the former ambassador for several months, Semikina says Taylor was polished and charismatic — true diplomatic qualities. During the interviews, he re-lived the events, going deeper into the story than ever before.

Walking to the window facing south, his former alma mater in view,Taylor says he sometimes gets too much credit for his role in Tehran. Ever gracious, he thinks any Canadian diplomat “worth their salt” would have the same thing.

But does every diplomat have the capacity to follow through on what he did?

Absolutely not, says Wright. “He was the right man at the right time.”

Leave a Comment