Imagine Vancouver if anti-development Harry Rankin had become mayor in 1986

The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical screens at DOXA Documentary Festival May 3 and 8

What would Vancouver look like today had Harry Rankin won the mayor’s race in 1986?

Maybe it’s naïve (or sci-fi) to believe that the impact of a single election could still be felt more than 30 years in the future.

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But that 1986 election — a race between bombastic, left-leaning political activist Harry Rankin and a young NPA upstart named Gordon Campbell — embodied the choice that a post-Expo ’86 Vancouver faced: do we serve the needs of the people who already live here with pushes towards affordable housing and caps on development, or do we capitalize on the global attention and open the city up for business?

Campbell won that watershed election in 1986, and the rest is both history and our present reality: Vancouver hung out its “open for business” sign to developers and foreign investors; Vancouver is in the midst of a housing crisis that is making it increasingly difficult for people to stay.  

Harry Rankin stumping
Harry Rankin was known to verbally lash out at audience members during campaign Q&As. - The Rankin File

The current relevance of this long-ago election is clear in The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, which kicks off the 2018 DOXA Documentary Film Festival on May 3.

“The comparisons between 1986 and 2018 make themselves,” says director Teresa Alfeld in a recent phone interview. “There was a lot of attention on the city at that time about where are we going to go. Now that we’re moving into being a metropolitan, world-class city, what does that really mean and what do we want to do and how do we want to build?”

Alfeld knew little more than Rankin’s name when his son Phil showed up at the social justice film organization she worked at with a request: to make sense of a “basement archive” of more than a dozen boxes of material related to his dad, who had died in 2002.

Harry Rankin being interviewed
Harry Rankin’s message was often lost, buried beneath the bombast. - The Rankin File

What Alfeld discovered in that basement archive was a treasure trove of clippings, campaign materials, and news footage, as well as reels of studio interviews with Rankin that were conducted as part of an unfinished documentary by filmmaker Peter Smilsky and left to languish in Phil Rankin’s basement.

“I didn’t know too much about Harry Rankin when I first got my hands on the film, but as I watched more and more, I came to learn this amazing story of this absolutely passionate, hilarious as hell and completely politically convicted individual and what he was trying to do with the city back in the ’80s, and so I realized, ‘Oh my god, I have to keep going with this,’” recalls Alfeld.

She did, and seven years later, the result of her diligence is The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, which shines a spotlight on a man whose dire warnings about Vancouver’s future have arguably come to pass. 

Rankin had been on local council for years — and was considered the most popular politician in Vancouver — by the time he announced his candidacy for the mayor’s race in 1986.

Harry Rankin COPE office
Harry Rankin ran under the COPE umbrella but he was very much his own man. - The Rankin File

He’d been waiting until COPE had a stronger presence on council before he ran, and when they did, he was ready with a platform that spoke to his long-held socialist beliefs.

Rankin believed in protections for tenants. He believed in affordable housing. He believed that 35 per cent of all new dwellings should be social housing. In one campaign rally shown in the film, the late social activist Jim Green calls Rankin “the best friend the Downtown Eastside ever had” (Rankin’s people called Campbell “the marathon man” because he was so closely associated with Marathon Realty).

This is how Rankin describes himself in the documentary: “I have a great capacity to be indignant about other people’s problems.”

But Rankin could also be rude and irritable. He’d verbally lash out at audience members during Q&As. In one debate with Campbell, he interrupted him and called him a twerp.

Thus, Rankin’s message was often lost, buried beneath the bombast (as well as incessant insinuations that he was a communist — which, during the Cold War, could and did cast a pall).

Gordon Campbell campaigning
At one meeting, Harry Rankin called his mayoral race opponent, Gordon Campbell, a twerp. - The Rankin File

The Rankin File includes present-day interviews with Rankin colleagues and foes who enjoyed a front-row seat to the campaign, including Libby Davies, Mike Harcourt, documentarian Smilsky (who expresses gratitude to Alfeld for finishing what he started), and Campbell himself.

“None of my peers knew who Harry was,” says Alfeld, who grew up in East Vancouver. “It’s hard now in 2018 to even begin to think that the city was different. There’s a polarization of wealth, and people my age can’t find places to live. Now that it’s an election year, it maybe could be different if we have the right folks in the right roles making the right decisions.”


The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical screens May 3 and 8 at the 2018 DOXA Documentary Festival. For tickets and schedule information, visit

Sabrina Furminger is the editor-in-chief of and is a regular columnist with the Vancouver Courier.

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