A small section in a new documentary, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, captures the essence of Vancouver civic politics in the early 1980s.
Committee of Progressive Electors alderman Harry Rankin bellows across the council chamber that the woman on the other side, NPA alderman Helen Boyce, is stupid. Boyce replies that she would rather be stupid than be Harry Rankin.
As the mayor, Mike Harcourt, tries to instill some decorum, Rankin continues his acrimonious fight with Boyce and another right-wing alderman of that era, George Puil.
“These aren’t skilled debaters acting at the best of their ability,” director Teresa Alfeld tells the Straight by phone. “At the same time, you can see how invested they are. I love that scene, really, for its comic potential.”
The Rankin File is full of vivid moments from Vancouver’s past as it tells the nuanced story of the supremely confident and outrageous rabble-rousing lawyer who served 25 years on council.
For Alfeld, it all began in 2011, when Rankin’s lawyer son, Phil, wanted help sorting through what he called his “basement archive”: stacks of documents about his father.
There, Alfeld discovered 33 reels of film and several pizza boxes full of prints.
“I asked Phil, ‘What is this?’ He said, ‘That’s an unfinished documentary by Peter Smilsky about my father,’ ” she recalled. “That was my introduction to the project.”
Rankin died of a heart attack at the age of 80 in 2002, and Alfeld, who grew up in East Van, never met him. But she was able to bring his multidimensional story to life with Smilsky’s blessing.
In the film Phil acts as a guide, describing his father’s experiences as a soldier who was court-martialled for insubordination, his difficulty getting accepted into law school because of his radical politics, and the influence of his mother on his father.
According to Alfeld, Rankin’s first wife, Jonnie, “played an enormous role not only in politicizing Harry but supporting him through his decades of politics and activism”.
At the heart of the documentary, however, is the most significant mayoral election in modern Vancouver history—the titanic fight in 1986 between Rankin and his youthful opponent, one-term councillor Gordon Campbell.
The campaign often centred around how much social housing should be built on the former Expo site, a debate that Alfeld punctuates with music from Doug and the Slugs and interview clips from TV talk-show host Jack Webster.
Rankin’s left-wing allies—Libby Davies, Jean Swanson, Fred Wilson, and Smilsky—all offer their views with the hindsight of history, and this is offset by comments from Harcourt, former councillor Darlene Marzari, and Campbell, who won in a landslide.
There's a particularly memorable footage of a COPE caucus meeting in Davies' living room with Swanson, Rankin, and councillors Bruce Yorke and Bruce Eriksen.
Alfeld described this as the "most picture perfect East Vancouver COPE political moment", revealing everyone participating and contributing as equals.
"That scene was so important to me," she said. "While it showed that Harry was a leader within COPE, it wasn't the Harry show."
At other times, however, things weren't quite so equal. In some of the film's more memorable moments, Harcourt and Marzari both spoke frankly about Rankin's sometimes sexist attitudes about women in politics.
Those are offset by respectful comments from Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and his wife, Joan Phillip. They warmly recollected Rankin's steadfast support for Indigenous people campaigning on behalf of Fred Quilt, a Native man killed by the RCMP in 1971.
At one point, Rankin was hauled before the Law Society of B.C. for declaring that the Quilt case showed that the justice system was racist.
Alfeld paid tribute to everyone who helped bring The Rankin File to life.
“This film has been the work of so many individuals not just for the seven years that I’ve been working on it, but really over 30 years since Peter started it back in the early 1980s,” the director said. “I also want to highlight the role of my producer, John Bolton, who has been the most incredible collaborator, mentor, and friend throughout the process.”More