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Is 'Argo' Canada's Story if We Never Claimed It?

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Ah, the Argo-bashing. Yeah, it was a bad rehash of the story of the rescue of six American diplomats from the jaws of the Iranian Revolution in 1980. And the producers screwed Ken Taylor and all the rest of the Canadians who were involved in what -- until now -- was called the Canadian Caper.

It was our story. The Americans stole it and re-wrote it to make themselves look better. Just like they stole the story of how the Brits foiled the Germans and got an Enigma code machine in World War II. Bad enough the Yanks take the credit for one of the greatest intelligence scores in modern history, but they had the never to cast Matthew McConaughey as the sub captain in U-571. Who's in charge of the urine tests around here?
Maybe it was easy to steal our story because we never really bothered to tell it.

There was one Canadian movie -- starring Gordon Pinsent, of course -- shot in 1981 in Toronto. Producers turned a trendy stretch of Queen Street into central Tehran through the clever use of Farsi signage. It was a dreadful thing with no commercial appeal.

And there was one lonely and not particularly good little book, almost immediately out of print, written by Paul Pelletier, the Canadian reporter who broke the story in 1980.

It's not that we didn't have 32 years to make our own decent movie. If we were serious, we could have hired internationally-famous actors and gone to some place that looked like Tehran -- the way the Brits do when they make, say, a Bond film.

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And someone could have gotten a grant to write a solid, interesting book that told the whole story. Did any of our big-shot White House reporters or academic historians go to the National Archives in Washington to look over the documents relating to the Canadian Caper scheme when Bill Clinton declassified them years ago? Seems not.

And the CBC... well, how do you miss the big story when one of your guys was in on it? Yup, Dennis Packer, a CBC cameraman, went to Tehran with CIA operative Tony Mendez to give a bit more credibility to the scam.

So, if it was really a Canadian Caper, Canadians didn't give much of a damn about it.

Affleck clued in to the story when he read a piece about the Argo ruse in Wired magazine. The Walrus and Maclean's somehow lost track of this great Canadian moment, and I wonder if they would have bought the Wired piece if it had been offered to them.

So it's hardly like Canada's media had much ownership of the story.

Yet it was a great story, and it still hasn't been told. Maybe the big turn-off was the Ottawa setting where most of it happened, a place unknown to Americans and despised by Canadians. Perhaps no one in the publishing or film business in Canada was really interested in the greatest moment in Joe Clark's career.

The Tehran situation played out in the fall of 1979, when Clark was meeting parliament as prime minister for the first time. Just over a month after Ken Taylor and his assistant John Sheardown took in the six Americans (given to them by the besieged Brits, who get a nasty, unfair backhand in Argo), the Clark government fell in a non-confidence vote and the country was embroiled in a winter election.

So, incredibly, the Canadian politicians involved in the planning -- especially Joe Clark and foreign minister Flora MacDonald -- were also fighting a losing battle to save their jobs while they were working on secret orders-in-councils and arranging, through Canada's own spy agencies, to create properly-documented cover identities for the six Americans.

But, hey, who cares? Even the Americans quickly forgot the six escapees and the 55 diplomats and Marines who were freed at the moment Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. The story had dragged on and on and on, and most people were more than glad to ignore Iran when it was over.

But if enough time's passed to make a good movie about the Canadian Caper, why not take out the utterly unhistorical and ridiculous airport police chase and give Clark, MacDonald, Sheardown and the dozens of spooks and bureaucrats involved in the rescue their due?

Maybe it's for the same reason you never see Ottawa in film, why James Bond will never drown a bad guy in the Centennial Flame fountain or toss someone down from the balcony inside the dome of the Library of Parliament.

Or for the same reason that Toronto is always Chicago and Montreal is New York in movies, and Vancouver fills in for Seattle.

Or why book publishers turn away fiction manuscripts because they have "too much Canada in them," as one of my friends was recently told when the third book of a police procedural trilogy was sent back to her by the Toronto office of her multi-national publisher.

Or why our most successful pulp authors write mysteries set entirely in the U.S. Or why there are still Canadiana sections in bookstores.

Is it because our books and movies stink? Or are we, when all's said and done, back-porch Americans, with a place in the world similar to Ukraine's in the Soviet Union, with our own UN seat but really just an attachment to a much more interesting superpower?

This is a world where millionaire American actors wearing Prada and diamonds crafted by Tiffany's can, without breaking into uncontrolled laughter or show the slightest hint of self-awareness, wave red flags and sing songs on a Hollywood stage about the plight of the poor of Louis Phillipe's France. No one laughed when they recreated "Occupy Paris 1832." But they and the studio execs but know that no one on either side of the border wants to see Joe Clark on the big screen, even if he is played by Gordon Pinsent.

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