Today is the 14th anniversary of Harry Rankin’s passing.
Many of you may know that Harry Rankin is my hero and mentor. I know it sounds a bit corny to say it, but he really did have a heart of gold. He also had the most unbelievable work ethic, and he combined these qualities with a very practical approach to life. But most importantly, Harry had a passionate commitment to justice and fairness.
When I was a very young man in third year at UBC, Harry wrote a letter of support that got me into law school there. Any other lawyer or politician as busy as he was would have found it easy to toss my request for a letter into the round file. Not Harry.
I was just 22 years old then and he’d already had a huge impact on my political development. In those days there was no HandyDART as it exists today. A number of us had been lobbying the City of Vancouver to improve specialized transportation for folks like me who couldn’t use public transit, which at that time had no ramps or lifts. To top things off, fares for the existing service, which was operated on a charity model by the then-named Lions Society for Crippled Children, were five times that of public transit.
Every time we appeared at City Council, one alderman (as they were called then) — namely Harry — stood head and shoulders above the rest of council in a league literally unto himself.
Watching council debate the various issues on the agenda before ours came up was a sight to behold. Rambling, meandering, pompous nothings so far from the issue at hand. Observers, myself included, would lose track of what on Earth was being debated. Then Harry would speak.
In mere seconds he would summarize the debate and frame it in such a compelling way that no one could argue with his conclusions. It made it very difficult for the rest of council to vote against him, even if they wanted to.
In spite of the fact that Harry had an incredibly busy law practice and was widely acknowledged as the hardest working City Councillor, he always made time for any constituent regarding any issue — no matter how seemingly small — including those of us advocating for what was to become HandyDART.
Harry’s profound impact on me didn’t end there. Three years later it was almost impossible for me to find an articling law position. I really could not fault the numerous lawyers who turned me down — an articling law student in many ways is nothing more than a glorified gofer. And I’m a terrible gofer! I’m also not much use to a lawyer looking for someone to do research as carrying, placing and opening books is not my forte given my limited arm function.
Finally, I did get an articling position with a lawyer who turned out to be an ambulance chaser. He worked out of his own mansion in Point Grey and didn’t want me there, so instead he put me in the law library five days a week where I was to do legal research. But I was so unproductive that he fired me.
Harry came to my rescue as he had for so many other young people. He hired me to complete my articling and gave me criminal cases. These were perfect for me because the cases were won or lost on counsel’s ability to think quickly on one’s feet.
Often, he’d pop into my office in one of his 30-second lunchtime appearances — “Hi. How are you? Here’s a file for you.” He’d toss it on my desk and would be through the door by the time I glanced at it. I’d yell out after him, “When’s the trial?” He’d be just about out of sight when he’d look at his watch and look back over his shoulder saying, “In about 90 minutes.”
No big deal for Harry. He could think on his feet and realize what the issue at hand was in a heartbeat.
Harry was deeply committed to not just a better and fairer city but also to a better and fairer world that was all about justice. He committed his entire life to that struggle.
The photos you see here — one of Harry when he was about 60, and the other when he was about 20 — are on my credenza at work right in front of me. I make eye contact with Harry throughout the day, every day.
Fourteen years after his passing, he inspires, motivates and guides me as much as he did then. I can’t help but think how positively we all could impact the issues facing Vancouver today if we stood true to Harry’s values.