From gadfly to icon of B.C. politics
Vancouver councillor was renowned for championing the underdog

Special to the Globe and Mail
Tuesday, March 5, 2002  Globe and Mail Print Edition, Page R9

VANCOUVER -- Harry Rankin was a loud, profane, bombastic, ungracious and unforgettable politician who could be nasty to his allies and much crueler to his foes. COPE site

Mr. Rankin, who has died, aged 81, was a self-described socialist who topped the polls in even the wealthiest neighbourhoods. He began his political career as a gadfly and ended it an icon, having spent 24 years as an alderman on Vancouver city council.

Mr. Rankin was a lifelong champion of the underdog: The tenant being gouged, the defendant being railroaded, the Indian whom no one believed. The word on the street was that even if you had nothing, you at least had Harry Rankin on your side.

Not one for sentimentality, he knew in his final days that his failing heart could send him to what he called "the golden dumpster in the sky."

"It's not much of a tragedy for an old man to die," he said.

Among his many well-wishers while in hospital were a former chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court and a convicted killer whom he had represented. The jurist paid his respects in person, the felon by phone from prison.

Mr. Rankin was a scrappy debater who called on a quick and ready wit. Once, he was exasperated by a rival who argued that firefighters had to be tall men and that women were simply too small for the job. Mr. Rankin's withering riposte: "Who the hell do you think puts out the fires in Shanghai?"

He had an untamed laurel of hair, a shoebrush mustache, and an exasperated expression in those rare moments when he was listening and not talking. When in full rhetorical flourish, Mr. Rankin sounded like an Old Testament prophet -- albeit a foul-mouthed one. He had the singlemindedness of a man certain in his convictions.

A Communist in all but party membership, Mr. Rankin was a utopian whose dream society proved to be a dystopian horror, a reality he firmly rejected. He would brook no criticism of anything Soviet. His political convictions were forged in the communist-fascist crucible of the 1930s. Mr. Rankin was immune to the influences of the New Left of the 1960s and the identity politics of recent years. He thought the former were egghead dilettantes and the latter pandered to a patronizing, middle-class tokenism.

Over the years, he was shamelessly red-baited by the city's newspapers and by a handful of columnists, some of whom still work themselves into apoplexy.

At heart, Mr. Rankin was a shy man with an exhibitionist bent which found expression in salty-tongued, blowhard statements.

"Even my dad's virtues could be his vices," said Phil Rankin, a prominent immigration lawyer. "He could be overbearing, arrogant, egotistical."

Harry Rankin was born on May 8, 1920, in Vancouver. His father was a factory worker who had been born in the Ukraine. He was a secular Jew eager for his children to be assimilated, so he changed the family name from Riffkin to Rankin. His mother, from whom Mr. Rankin inherited both his drive and his pugnacious nature, had been born in Glasgow's Jewish tenement district, a hotbed of early socialist thought.

Harry dropped out of Grade 9 at age 14 to take a $7.50 a week job at a bakery. He later joined the bakers' union and walked on picket lines.

Without telling his parents, he enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders days after Canada declared war on Germany in 1939. Mr. Rankin was hurt once in training, wounded during the bloody Battle of Ortona in Italy, and suffered a third injury on May 23, 1944, when he was hit in the back by shrapnel while fighting in Italy.

After the war, he completed his high-school education before earning a bachelor of arts and law degree in just five years at the University of British Columbia.

At school, he joined the Communist University Club, an affiliation which nearly led to his being barred from practice as a lawyer.

The Law Society of B.C. ordered Mr. Rankin and three other law students to appear before a special hearing. The year before, the society had prevented a Communist student from joining the bar. After testifying, Mr. Rankin was made to sign a document that began: "I, Harry Rankin, do solemnly swear that I am not a Communist." He later described his interrogation as a witch hunt.

"This was simply political intimidation," Mr. Rankin wrote in his 1975 autobiography, Harry's Law: Recollections of a Radical.

He was later named a life bencher of the law society, served as its treasurer, and was appointed Queen's Counsel.

Shortly after joining the bar, Mr. Rankin helped establish B.C.'s first legal-aid system, which was funded by voluntary contributions. One of his best-known cases came on behalf of the family of Fred Quilt, a 55-year-old aboriginal man who died shortly after an altercation with two RCMP officers. Mr. Rankin's efforts helped get a second inquest called in 1972.

The case was a landmark among aboriginals, who found in Mr. Rankin not only a formidable advocate, but one willing to do so without payment.

Mr. Rankin ran for office more than a dozen times before voters elected him in 1966 as the lone opposition alderman to face a Non-Partisan Association council. Contrary to its name, the NPA was a partisan, pro-development party that acted loosely as a farm team for the Social Credit party that governed the province.

Vancouver has no ward system and voters had nine votes to mark on the aldermanic ballot. It was said that many cast eight votes for the NPA and one for Harry Rankin to keep them honest.

Mr. Rankin helped form the Committee (now Coalition) of Progressive Electors (COPE), a civic party opposed to the NPA.

In his quarter-century on city council, Mr. Rankin proved more durable and far more popular than the incredible cast of politicians with whom he readily jousted. When one of his opponents quit council, Mr. Rankin struck an uncharacteristically kind tone -- at first: "I wish him good health and a long life . . . but somewhere else."

In 1986, Mr. Rankin lost his only bid for the mayor's chair to an up-and-comer named Gordon Campbell, who is now the premier of B.C. The battle was billed as The Kid vs. The Curmudgeon. They were from different sides of the tracks; Mr. Campbell's grandfather had once employed Mr. Rankin's father in his clothing factory.

The defeat kept Mr. Rankin from council chambers for the first time in two decades. He said he did not mind the hiatus. "God almighty, 20 years with some of those jerks is like having water dripping on your head and boring into your skull."

Still, he was returned to council as an alderman before retiring from elected politics in 1993.

Mr. Rankin's final assault on city hall came during a transit strike last year, when he led a group of seniors in protest at the city's dithering. Security guards were ordered to block Mr. Rankin from entering.

Mr. Rankin married Jeannette (Jonnie) Ottewell (nee Tonge) on Sept. 15, 1948. She was a divorced mother of three. The couple added a son in 1951 and a daughter two years later.

Their home at 3570 Hull St., which had been built by Mr. Rankin's father, became known as the Rankin Hotel for the many activists who stayed there. Among them was Cesar Chavez of the California farm workers' union.

The couple separated in 1985 and the next year Mr. Rankin married Connie Fogal, a one-time COPE parks commissioner.

Mr. Rankin died of complications that followed a quintuple-bypass heart operation. He had opted for the risky surgery because the alternative was to live as an invalid. When told of the birth of a grandson while in hospital, Mr. Rankin quipped: "In with the new, out with the old."

He leaves his wife Connie Fogal; son Philip Rankin and daughter Rosemary Stone; a brother and two sisters.

A memorial service will be held on Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Croatian Cultural Centre in Vancouver.

The flag at city hall was not lowered on news of his death, which angered his supporters. They demanded the city honour the people's champion, who, one can be sure, would have enjoyed the fight.

Harry Rankin, lawyer and alderman; born in Vancouver on May 8, 1920; died on Feb. 26, 2002.