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Movie Review: The Rankin File, Legacy of a Radical

Ryan Schebek

June 18, 2018

There could not be a more apt time in Vancouver election history to make a movie about Harry Rankin’s life. This year will mark a historic mayoral election for Vancouver, as Gregor Roberson of Vision Vancouver steps down. Affordable housing is on everyone’s mind, paralleling the same issues campaigned on in 1986 when Harry ran.

Harry was a lawyer and political activist who was first elected to Vancouver city council in 1966. In 1986 he ran for mayor of Vancouver and lost against Gordon Campbell. The film is a documentary directed by SFU film student Teresa Alfeld. The movie combines original reels of 16mm footage with modern day interviews with other activist who worked close to Harry and knew him personally. The original 16mm footage was provided by Phil Rankin upon request to finally finish the movie. The original film was shot by Peter Smilsky during Harry’s lifetime.

Alfeld’s documentary centres around the 1986 mayoral election and attempts to capture Harry’s larger than life personality on screen. The film does a wonderful job of balancing the inconsistencies of Harry’s character: his constant balancing act between humour and stubbornness, fighting for socialism but denying to his opponents he was a communist. Harry, we are told, joked that he was for higher density building projects in Vancouver because when the revolution happened they would be easier to take back.

Campaigning under the municipal party COPE, Harry’s politics were considered left wing as he fought for affordable housing in the False Creek area as Expo 86’ was wrapping up. Perhaps if Harry had won we would be living in a very different city. Today we live in the neoliberal fallout of the Campbell era as social housing is slashed and government land is used for luxury condo developments. There is a strong parallel between Expo 86’ and the Vancouver Winter Olympics of 2010: both events were used to justify expansive development projects that only benefit the wealthy. Olympic Village, built during the Olympics, was developed under the promise that is would provide social housing to citizens in need. However today the Olympic Village continues to expand, often with rooms left empty and soaring rent costs. This is similar to events surrounding Expo 86’ as Harry campaigned to allocate 35% of Expo land towards social housing. In reality developments on Expo land have become the opposite.

The movie serves as a window into the past and lessons for the future of Vancouver. Archival footage from the 80’s shows protests and pickets outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Their signs read a clear need for affordable housing and justice for Fred Quilt (who died after being beaten by RCMP in custody). These issues are relevant today and Harry had the guts, back then, to openly call the actions of the RCMP racist during the trial of Fred Quilt. He had no hesitation speaking the truth and fighting for everyday Vancouverites.

This documentary captures the very essence of Harry Rankin, his humour, his boldness and his marathon-like will to keep fighting for truth and justice. Today there is not a single park, street or sign dedicated to Harry’s legacy. This movie stands as one of the few remnants of his legacy for the younger generations and is true inspiration of the viewer.

To learn more about the movie and up coming screenings visit:

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