On Jan. 27, 1980, six Americans were flown out of Iran in a covert Canadian operation that came to be known as the "Canadian Caper." For three long, anxious months, it was business as usual as Canadian embassy staff worked amidst the growing anarchy unfolding in Tehran.
As personal secretary to Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador, no one was more capable of keeping secrets than Laverna Dollimore. For her efforts during those months she was among a group that would be named to the Order of Canada.
Dollimore was 89 when she died of natural causes in Trenton, Ont., on Oct. 24. In a career that lasted 27 years with External Affairs (now the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada), Tehran was not the first "hardship post" she had volunteered for as she travelled the world. She worked with many of Canada's top diplomats in many of the world's hot spots, such as Egypt, the former Belgian Congo, Vietnam and Iran. For Dollimore, it was an unbelievable opportunity to satisfy a lifelong passion for independence and adventure.
Laverna Katie Dollimore was born in Toronto on Jan. 22, 1922. She was the youngest child of William Dollimore and Eva Somner. The family was by no means affluent and upon graduation from Oakwood Collegiate High School, Dollimore enrolled in a one-year business course at Western Technical Commercial School in Toronto, which she finished in 1938. For the next five years, she worked at various secretarial positions but as the Second World War unfolded, she decided to enlist in the Women's Royal Naval Service (the Wrens), and in 1943 was posted to HMCS Cornwallis in Halifax.
Dollimore loved the life and was given the important task of "victualizing" the base or providing food and stores for servicemen and women. She had an ambition to become a petty officer with the Navy and wrote the exam. But when the war ended that ambition was abandoned and she returned to Toronto and secretarial and accounting jobs. Then in 1956 she decided to write the public service exam and joined External Affairs. The following spring she headed off to her first secretarial posting to the Canadian embassy in Cairo.
The Canadian mission had been evacuated during the height of the Suez Crisis and many of the former staff were reluctant to return. But for Dollimore it was a lucky break. And she made the most of exploring and seeing the sights. Hardship posts usually lasted only a couple of years so in August, 1960, she was assigned to the new Canadian embassy in Poland. Her boss, G. Hamilton Southam, became the first Canadian ambassador to Poland. The two worked well together and would soon renew that working relationship under different circumstances.
Living conditions in Poland were primitive and unaccommodating so it was with some relief that after two years she found another posting, this one in Kuala Lumpur for a one-year stint. Then it was back to Ottawa and, once again, she worked with G. Hamilton Southam, who returned to Ottawa in the summer of 1962. Southam was reassigned as director of the communications division in the Department of External Affairs. Apart from that job, Southam had taken on the enormous task of searching for and building a performing arts centre in Ottawa. When the project was finally under way, Lester Pearson, the prime minister at the time, made him director-general of the National Arts Centre. He resigned from External Affairs, but insisted he be able to take Dollimore with him. She agreed to the new post for a year.
Dollimore preferred working abroad to being in Ottawa. In May of 1965 she was posted to the embassy in Leopoldville (later Kinshasa) in the Belgian Congo. The new Canadian ambassador, J.C. Gordon Brown, described the Congo as "a synonym for bloodshed, instability, assassinations, civil war and secession." One of Dollimore's colleagues described the secretarial life at the embassies as unconventional at the best of times. Executive secretaries at the top had a great deal of responsibility, but the hours were long and filled with a variety of tasks from decoding top-secret Telex, to running up the Canadian flag. Dollimore rose quickly through the ranks because she was able and excellent at managing her bosses.
By the following year, she was in Moscow with ambassador Robert A.D. Ford, who spent most of his career in Russia during the height of the Cold War. Dollimore spent her home leaves with her sister, Neysa, and her family. Niece Wynneth Clark remembers her aunt describing Moscow as "grey" and saying she was certain that her apartment was bugged and that her housekeeper was likely KGB.
In 1969, she found herself in a different role. This time she headed to Laos, as part of the Canadian delegation for the International Commission for Supervision and Control. Its mandate was to implement the terms of the Geneva Conventions, particularly in the discontinuation of hostilities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Her new boss was Percy Stewart Cooper, head of the Canadian military inspection team, and she worked in conditions that were described as primitive. For her services during this time she was awarded the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medal.
Her next posting was far more congenial as she managed to obtain back to back postings in London, England, and spent the next six years there working for high commissioners Charles Ritchie and Paul Martin Sr.
By 1977 she was back in Ottawa and between jobs when she noticed a posting for Tehran and put her name in. With the Shah of Iran still ensconced as ruler, there was no indication that, within a few years, anti-American sentiment would run so high that Tehran would become a dangerous place to be.
Dollimore later remembered that the only time she felt in danger was when revolutionary guards showed up at her apartment looking for Americans. She hid behind her door and called the Canadian embassy and the MPs quickly responded. But she refused to open her door until they called out to her, "Verna, it's the good guys!" She was given the opportunity to leave during those tense months in 1979, but she remained an integral part of the embassy until the six Americans were safely out of Iran and it was closed. Only then did she board a flight to safety.
Dollimore retired from External Affairs in 1983 and moved to Brighton, Ont., to be close to Neysa. It was her philosophy to always look forward and never look back ,but she made one small exception. Every five years, a reunion would take place with her comrades from the embassy in Tehran. She hosted the 25th anniversary of the "Canadian Caper" at her house. Sadly, illness prevented her from attending the 30th anniversary last year.
Laverna Katie Dollimore leaves her nieces, great-nieces and nephews.
Special to The Globe and Mail