From prison to politics – remembering Frank Howard

Frank Howard parlayed his outsider status to considerable influence, fighting for changes that had a profound impact on Canadian society. But his greatest legacy is his inspiring story of redemption.

Former MP

Surrey has lost a remarkable political figure and citizen.

Frank Howard, who passed away March 15 at age 85, retired here after the sort of political career that’s best described as legendary – certainly newsworthy.

He was a backbench MP from a remote northern B.C. riding who managed to parlay his outsider status to considerable influence – and harboured a criminal record to boot.

As a young man, he’d served nearly two years in B.C. Pen for armed robbery.

After his release, he worked as a logger and soon became a rising force as a union official with the International Woodworkers’ of America, signing and certifying scores of workers at logging camps up and down the coast during a tumultuous period in B.C.’s labour history.

His political career began in 1953, when he ran in Skeena as a candidate for the provincial CCF.

He won by just 13 votes.

In those days, elected members of B.C.’s legislature didn’t receive an annual salary, so when Howard went to Victoria, he slept in a cot in a hotel room he shared with four other MLAs.

He was elected to parliament in 1957.

Blunt and tough, with a reputation as a scrapper, at times he was even on the outs with his own party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which later became the NDP.

The voters of Skeena rewarded him for it, returning him to office 10 times for a total of 27 years – 17 of them as an MP.

Friends remember him as compassionate and caring – qualities that informed the causes he took up.

He was instrumental in winning the right for Canada’s First Nations to vote in federal elections – which wasn’t granted until 1960, by the way.

He also championed prison and divorce law reform, staging a three-year filibuster along with fellow MP Arnold Peters for the latter. It was among his proudest accomplishments.

There were low points, too.

When someone blackmailed him for $5,000 threatening to spill the beans about his criminal record, Howard got ahead of the story.

He marched over to Terrace’s CFTK studio and confessed on live TV.

“I recall sort of winding it up, almost in a cheerful way: ‘How many times does one have to pay for a stupid mistake?’” He recalled years later.

The notoriety generated national headlines and earned him a spot on Front Page Challenge (he also hung onto his seat during Trudeaumania), but it’s not the only story worth remembering about Howard.

His greatest accomplishment is how he turned his life around despite early hardships and the miserable criminal pathway he’d found himself on.

His childhood was tragic, sad, and eminently troubled.

He was raised by foster parents, and was sent away at 12, sentenced to six years in the care of the Children’s Aid Society after stealing a pie from a hotel window. His early schooling was erratic and he left high school before finishing Grade 10.

He attempted suicide twice.

It couldn’t have been easy to live through, much less record in painful detail in his 2003 autobiography, From Prison to Parliament.

He wasn’t proud of the illegal acts he committed in his youth. But he refused to make excuses.

“I came to this conclusion many years ago, – don’t blame anybody else for your difficulties,” he told me during an interview the following year.

“I got to the point where I hated the police. I hated the social workers. I hated foster homes. I suppose I hated myself, too. But I still had to come to the conclusion that it was my doing.”

The turning point was realizing while he was serving time that he wasn’t smart enough to keep out of jail, and he sure didn’t want to serve a life sentence a few years at a time.

It’s rare for a backbencher opposition MP to be heard in the House of Commons much less fight for changes that have a profound and lasting impact on Canadian society.

He was proud of moving from breaking laws to making them.

He said he wrote the book at the request of his two step-children.

He hoped it might serve as a way to help others lead a more honourable and respectful life.

That’s quite a legacy.