When I heard of Frank Howard’s passing my first recollection of him was a phone call back in 2000.
He had heard I was undergoing chemotherapy in Vancouver. I had heard that his wife Julienne had lost her battle the year before. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and then Frank offered to pick me up at the airport and drive me to the Vancouver Cancer Center every time I need to come into town, I could stay with him if I wanted to and if it was required he would loan me of one of his vehicles.
He lived in South Surrey. It never occurred to me at the time that he was reaching out from his own grief until I read his book From Prison to Parliament published in 2003. I will always remember that phone call and beyond all the details of his political life and his accomplishments, Frank Howard was a compassionate, caring person.
I had heard sketchy details of his unstable formative early childhood; his troubled youth and his two year prison term for armed robbery. Upon his release he saw where his life was heading and he vowed to change. He was 20 years old and had hit rock bottom.
The Rt. Hon. John N. Turner, Former Prime Minister, wrote the foreword in Howard’s book and his thoughts about Frank Howard “are simply an acknowledgment that a person can increase the possibility of self-improvement by taking responsibility for the actions and behavioral patterns in one’s life.”
The climb back for Frank Howard started in getting a trade and work as a logger. He became active in the International Woodworkers of America, Local 1-71 (Logger local). He was president of the local for seven years.
In 1953 he ran for the CCF in the provincial election in Skeena and won by 13 votes. He lost in 1956. He was again elected in 1957, This time in a federal election and began a 17 year career in the House of Commons where he was the spokesperson for fisheries, northern affairs, Indian affairs and labour. After his loss in 1974 and a brief hiatus, Howard ran again in the provincial election in Skeena in 1979 and won. He served until 1986.
On election night in 1986 I was at the party function. Frank gave a speech. His wife Julienne was at his side and I recall that the tough exterior, I had so often witnessed when he was at a political function, cracked and Frank became teary-eyed as he thanked his workers. I found out a few days later that he had waged the last part of the campaign while his son Robert was terminally ill.
He championed the causes of getting aboriginal people who lived on reserves the right to vote, changes in divorce laws and prison reform.
He could be blunt but he was a tough, passionate political scrapper infuriating other politicians.
When I arrived in the BC Legislature in 1991 I was asked by clerks if I knew Frank Howard and they would tell me tales of his political smarts in the legislature.
Perhaps Frank Howard’s life is best described in his own words found in the introduction of his book. “Am I proud of my life? Not fully. I’m ashamed of having committed illegal acts in my youth. On the other hand, I’m proud of having been able to move from breaking laws to making them. If this chronicle can lead others to take a miserable life style and change it into one more honorable and respectful, it will have served a good purpose. I will be pleased with that.”
Rest in peace old friend.
Helmut Giesbrecht was the NDP MLA for Skeena between 1991 and 2001.