Harry The “Crypto-Communist”: What Was On The Line

Originally published February 16 2016.

“No one who went through the campaigns of Sicily and Italy could be any stranger to fear, but as my footsteps reverberated on the marble floor and echoed from the vaulted ceiling of the long corridor leading to the Benchers’ chamber, I could feel my heartbeats pounding in my ears. The apprehension I felt was a new sensation for within that room ahead sat a handful of men who had the power to make an irrevocable decision on the whole course of my life. At least when I faced the Germans I was equally equipped with weapons and so had a fifty-fifty lever with them! The contest ahead of me was totally unequal.”

Rankin’s Law: Recollections of a Radical, 1972, p.70-71

I keep my copy of Harry’s autobiography on my coffee table. I think it’s a fascinating read – not just because of the subject matter, but because Harry writes so evocatively. You may read the above passage thinking he’s describing his time in the army, serving overseas during WW2. Nope. The scene he is describing is one central to Harry’s mythology: his battle against the Law Society Benchers in 1950.

At the time, Harry was in the process of completing his law studies at UBC. While at school, he joined the Communist University Club, serving briefly as its treasurer. In his book, Harry describes his interest in progressive politics following his return from the war, and how the club (independent and unaffiliated with the national party) brought in a host of compelling and accomplished speakers. Little did Harry know this decision would jeopardize his ability to practice law, and follow him throughout the rest of his career.

“I, Harry Rankin, do solemnly swear that I am not a communist or a member of any association holding communist views that if called to the Bar I can take the Barristers’ Oath without reservations of any kind and that I have no intention of following any communist association in the future. That I do not and will not advocate nor am I a member of any organization that advocates the overthrow of democratic government by force of violence or other unconstitutional means.”

When I first began my investigations into Harry’s story years ago, this anecdote about Harry renouncing any ties to communism before being called to the bar was so often repeated to me that it took on a mythic quality. David, with his progressive views, versus a panel of conservative and unyielding Goliaths. To read Harry’s own words from his book (including the prepared statement above, which he was compelled to sign) – further compounds the hyperbole.

Above: a photo I took of a randomly distributed note warning potential voters of “comrade Rankin” from the 1986 mayoral election. Source: Vancouver City Archives

Above: a photo I took of a randomly distributed note warning potential voters of “comrade Rankin” from the 1986 mayoral election. Source: Vancouver City Archives

It wasn’t until I read all of Harry’s book that I really understood this story within the context of the time. And I don’t just mean the rampant McCarthyism, and the Rosenberg trial, and everything we learned about in History 12 (thanks, Ms. Toms!). I mean Gordon Martin, a man of a similar position to Harry whose story proved to be a cautionary tale.

Harry tells Martin’s story in his book, in a chapter titled A Private Inquisition. Martin, a few years ahead of Harry at UBC law, is called before the Benchers in 1948 before being admitted to the Bar. Harry describes Martin, a married man and air force veteran, as quiet yet steadfast in his Marxist beliefs. To the Benchers, however, Martin did not pass the requirement of being a “fit and proper person” in order to belong to the legal profession. After his rejection, Martin took his case to the BC Court of Appeals, where Justice J.A. Robertson confirmed the Benchers’ decision, because “Communists’ protestations of loyalty are not to be accepted, and that they consider their first obligation to the Communist Party.” Because of Martin’s political beliefs, he could not be trusted, and would not be allowed to practice law. Harry goes on to write that after the Benchers’ rejection, Martin moved his family to Nanaimo and became a television repairman. Not a broken man, though; one of “steely resolve and integrity.”

Gordon Martin’s story helps us understand what was at stake for Harry when he signed that declaration rejecting his communist beliefs, and what the red baiting throughout his career really meant, and why the RCMP surveilled him for thirty years even once he’d become an elected official, and why I still can’t really get a clear picture of what his relationship with the national Communist Party was. Had just a few elements in his story been different, there may not have been a Harry Rankin.

THE RANKIN FILE Demo Video is Complete

Originally published January 25 2016.

Produced by John Bolton of Opus 59 Films, The Rankin File: Legacy Of A Radical is a feature documentary investigation into the colourful and sometimes controversial life of Vancouver lawyer, city councillor and socialist icon Harry Rankin.  After receiving a generous grant from the BC Arts Council, we are now fundraising to complete the film. Please take a look at our Indiegogo page where you can learn more about the project and how you can help!

Harry Rankin: A Documentary Thirty Years in the Making

Originally published December 29 2015.

Slate from director Peter Smilksy's original film shoot in 1986.

Slate from director Peter Smilksy's original film shoot in 1986.

Thirty years. Most filmmakers will tell you that completing a film can certainly take a number of years, even a decade or more in some cases. Thirty is not the average.

It was thirty years ago that lawyer-turned-director Peter Smilsky decided to make a documentary film about a local politician named Harry Rankin. Rankin, a successful criminal lawyer and co-founder of the leftist civic party COPE, was celebrating nearly twenty years of serving on Vancouver city council. He thought he’d top it off by running for the mayor’s seat against a young newcomer named Gordon Campbell – after all these years, it was Rankin’s turn.  Smilsky filmed Rankin along the campaign trail, interviewing him both in the studio and on the fly. When Rankin lost his bid for mayor, the film lost steam. Several reels of 16 mm film and 1/4 inch audio tape were loaded into Rubbermaids and packed away.

About twenty-five years later, Rankin’s son Phil decided to find out what remained inside the Rubbermaids he’d inherited after his dad had passed. My colleague Julius Fisher and I were brought on to archive the contents. Fresh out of film school, I descended into Phil’s dusty basement to retrieve the Rubbermaids, just one part of his extensive collection of material relating to his dad’s impressive career. A kind friend allowed me access to their Steenbeck, whereupon I strung up the rigid workprints. And that is how I first met the late Harry Rankin.

Fast forward five years, and I am now picking up where Smilsky left off. Along with my producers John Bolton and Julius Fisher, we have restored Smilsky’s footage and used it to ground our contemporary documentary about Harry called The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical. Our film offers a portrait of Vancouver’s legendary city councillor, political activist, and crypto-communist – the glorious highs and devastating lows of his long career, centred on his 1986 mayoral bid against Campbell.

2015 saw us finally begin production by interviewing six key characters for the film: Harry’s son Phil Rankin, his widow Connie Fogal, his ally Libby Davies, his student Tim Louis, his comrade Fred Wilson, and his opponent Gordon Campbell. Each took time to reflect upon Harry’s life and legacy – a continued source of controversy for those closest to him. I also interviewed Peter Smilsky, and talked at length about the original production. We look forward to completing production and postproduction by the end of the new year.

This film is about a principled, complex, and enigmatic man – one whom the RCMP deemed so radical that he warranted thirty years of covert surveillance. But this film isn’t just about Harry, or his complicated legacy. It’s about the people around him, and the politics, ideals, and ideologies that ran through their blood. It’s a social history of the left in Vancouver, and how 20th century world politics played out not only in countries and cities, but also amongst circles of family and friends.

Charlie Gauvin Screening at the Female Eye Film Festival

Originally published June 19 2013.

Nancy and I are very excited to announce that Charlie Gauvin will be screening at the Female Eye Film Festival on Thursday, June 20 at the Carlton in Toronto. This follows our 2013 screenings at the Canadian Film Fest and Women in Film Toronto Short Film Showcase. While Nancy is in Vancouver, I’m very excited to attend the festival, see some awesome films and meet the talented filmmakers.

Female Eye is a phenomenal festival that has been very supportive of my work in the past – my film Bunky the Vampire Killer screened there in 2011 and lead Orin Mcrey was nominated for best actress in a short film!

For more info on the Female Eye Film Festival, visit www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com.

Hope to see you there!