Obituary

Frank Howard: from the cellblock to Centre Block

Special to The Globe and Mail

Frank Howard (right) prepares to climb a 90-foot spar as part of loggers' sports days in Terrace, B.C.

Frank Howard went from breaking laws to making them.

Born into the most unpromising circumstance, he succumbed to the lure of crime before following a path that led to a seat in the House of Commons. The remarkable transformation is detailed in a memoir with a title succinctly capturing his life's journey - From Prison to Parliament. In it, he declares himself the only ex-convict to become a Canadian lawmaker. Indeed, it is easier to imagine a reverse trajectory.

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Howard, who died on March 15 at 85 of complications from pneumonia, became a champion of working people and a tribune for society's least favoured members, from aboriginals to prisoners forgotten behind penitentiary walls.

In his long career as a member of Parliament, he took part in a three-year filibuster that led to reform of the divorce laws. He is also credited with helping those who lived on reserves gain universal adult suffrage in 1960.

A miner and logger before he ran for office, he campaigned by scaling poles at sporting events and by reeling in ling cod the size of a child. For 17 years, he represented an isolated and far-flung constituency in northwestern British Columbia encompassing a territory nearly the size of France, but with a fraction of the people.

With a craggy face topped by a shock of hair and chevron-shaped eyebrows, which turned white in old age - lending him the air of an Old Testament prophet - it was no stretch to imagine the solid six-footer as a lumberjack. The Native Brotherhood of B.C. bestowed on him the name Weget, a Gitga'at honour meaning big, or powerful.

As a teenager, he had occasion to search for his birth certificate. He knew he had been placed with another family shortly after his birth, but not until he dug into the archives did he discover how confused was his biography.

"Here I am with two different surnames and four different birth dates," he wrote in his memoir. "Who the hell am I?"

Frank Robert Howard was born in Kimberley, B.C., on or about April 27, 1925. His mother, Dorothy Naas, worked as a prostitute on the outskirts of the mining town in the Kootenay River Valley. His father, Rowlat Widlake Steeves, is believed to have been her pimp.

On his birth, he was given to foster parents who, later, spoke unkindly of the birth parents. They were described with contempt as "unmarried, no-good, rotten sons of bitches."

While in grade school, Frank scavenged beer bottles, their return to the brewery bringing a penny each, which he then used to buy single cigarettes to smoke with friends. Daily life involved misadventures and petty thievery. After he and two pint-sized scofflaws stole a butterscotch pie from the kitchen window of the Sullivan Hotel, he was taken before a judge, who determined he was a neglected child. At 12, he was sent away from the only family he had known. On the journey to an orphanage in Vancouver, a policeman escorting the boy molested him as he cried on a bed in a motel room.

A docile, quiet child, Frank endured a stint at the Alexandra Children's Home on West Seventh Avenue - "a warehouse containing kids in institutional clothing," he would write - before being directed to the first of a series of foster homes. He contemplated suicide and ran away several times, once hot-wiring a stolen automobile in a desperate bid to return to Kimberley to visit his foster brother.

Howard, who dropped out in Grade 10, worked after school and in the summer in a foundry, pouring molten iron into moulds for $4 a week.

He found a wartime job in the Vancouver shipyards, but, with an accomplice, went on a month-long crime spree in the summer of 1943, robbing two jewellery stores and the Castle Hotel while armed with a revolver. In one of the holdups, the pair netted $2,000 in rings, watches and diamonds after sticking a gun in the back of an elderly employee.

Howard was convicted of three counts of armed robbery and sentenced to two years on each charge. He recalled anxiously awaiting the judge's final verdict. "I remember listening for those words, either 'consecutive' or 'concurrent.' I was lucky. The word was 'concurrent.' " He served 20 months in the federal penitentiary in New Westminster, with time off for good behaviour, before being released on May 1, 1945. He walked out with $10 in his pocket and a prison-bought suit on his back.

A criminal record made it difficult to find work, so he abandoned his foster name - he had been convicted as Frank Thomas Woodd - and became Frank Howard. He found jobs as a logger and, in under four years became an organizer for the International Woodworkers of America, serving as president of Local 1-71 for seven years.

He stood as a Co-operative Commonwealth Federation candidate in the 1952 provincial election, challenging a Coalition cabinet minister in Skeena. "I wasn't attracted to the CCF because of any theories it held regarding sociopolitical matters," he wrote. "I joined because I was a trade unionist; because corporations had the ear of government and workers did not."

He lost, but claimed a seat in the legislature in Victoria the following year by a 13-vote margin. After a single term, he lost to a Social Credit rival by 63 votes.

He then set his sights on Ottawa, defeating Liberal incumbent Ted Applewhaite, an insurance salesman, in the federal riding of Skeena in 1957. Howard would represent Skeena for 17 years, withstanding both the John Diefenbaker sweep of 1958 and Trudeaumania a decade later. Howard held the seat for the CCF and its successor, the New Democratic Party, for seven campaigns before losing in 1974 to the Liberals' Iona Campagnolo, a future lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.

A fierce advocate for his constituents, Howard once wrote to the provincial highways minister to complain about the state of the unpaved road between Williams Lake and Bella Coola. He told Philip Gaglardi, a politician who drove so fast he was known as Flyin' Phil, that the three graders on the highway were known as High Blade, Never-Scratch and Old Feather Touch.

"The road is pimpled and warted with rocks," Howard wrote. "There are sharp rocks, spiked rocks, rugged, jagged and craggy rocks. They are round, square, conical, oval, notched, toothed and spired. There are large rocks, medium-sized rocks and even some pebbles. They protrude, project, pout, bulge and bunch themselves from all parts of the road. Between the rocks there are cavities, concavities, indentations, craters, sockets, depressions, hollows, dips, pits, troughs, basins, washboards, and holes of all sorts."

The monthly mimeographed newsletter he mailed to 1,800 constituents once sandwiched a recipe for chocolate cake between news of the latest political developments in Ottawa. The politician advocated cooking as a hobby for men, comparing it to bowling as a way to relax after work.

A blunt, outspoken figure in the House, he receive rebukes from the Speaker more than once. He delighted in sniping with Conservatives. Howard worked with caucus mate Arnold Peters to block 1,100 divorce petitions from Quebec and Newfoundland, two provinces whose lack of divorce courts left the matter to Parliament. The pair filibustered for three years to draw attention to the need for reform of Canada's archaic divorce laws.

Speaking in the House in 1964, Howard warned that Quebec's demands would be insatiable and suggested the rest of Canada should proceed on the notion that someday the Confederation would consist of only nine provinces. At least one member of the NDP caucus later told the House they challenged Howard's vision of the future.

Howard gained a reputation as an advocate for penal reform, denouncing the "deplorable conditions" at St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary at Montreal. Few knew his advocacy came from personal experience. The parliamentarian confided his criminal past to party leaders and close friends, but the public remained ignorant until he made a televised confession in 1967.

After receiving an extortion note, which he shared with police, Howard purchased air time on CFTK-TV in Terrace, B.C. He admitted to having spent time in jail, though he refused to offer details of his crimes, which were later revealed by reporters who checked legal records. The admission was big news, in part because of the dramatic circumstance. The Vancouver Sun's front-page headline read, "MP Frank Howard admits: I served time in penitentiary."

Howard had received a note demanding a payment of $5,000 in bills of $10, $20 and $50. This was to be sent in a small box wrapped in brown paper addressed to a fictitious name in care of general delivery at the Vancouver post office. The blackmailer promised to repay the money at $100 per week for one year.

"If not," the note threatened, "I will totally ruin you by distributing proof of your past to your friends, relatives, political associates and appropriate authorities." It was signed, "An old friend."

Gary Stephen Ross, the 18-year-old son of a union organizer and Howard family friend, pleaded guilty to the extortion attempt. Howard called for leniency. Ross received a one-year jail term, which was reduced on appeal to a two-year suspended sentence. The youth went on to a distinguished career as an author and publisher, and is currently editor-in-chief of Vancouver magazine. He said he had a reconciliation with Howard.

The exposé gained Howard sympathy, not censure.

His advocacy on behalf of native people included harsh criticism of a bureaucracy he saw enriching itself at the expense of his constituents. "We should have a bonfire and burn the Indian Act," he said in 1969. "There's a group of empire builders in the department that seeks to perpetuate themselves." The walls of his Ottawa office were decorated with his own paintings of the totem poles to be found back home.

In 1971, Howard entered the federal NDP leadership contest called after the retirement of T.C. (Tommy) Douglas. He launched his candidacy with harsh words against a radical wing of the party known as the Waffle, whose call for the nationalization of resource industries he decried as politically naive and lacking common sense. A low-key campaign seemed based on the gamble of winning delegates at the convention in Ottawa. Shortly before the vote, Howard spent a fortnight touring the Antipodes with Jean Chrétien, then Indian Affairs and Northern Development minister. On the first ballot, Howard got just 124 votes of 1,698 cast, finishing last of five candidates in a race won on the fourth ballot by David Lewis. Among the defeated challengers was future party leader Ed Broadbent.

After losing his seat, Howard worked briefly as a consultant on aboriginal affairs for Dave Barrett's NDP government in B.C. He later became a stockbroker with Richardson Securities of Canada.

Howard re-entered the political fray in his home province in 1979, knocking off stalwart Socred MLA Cyril Shelford, a rancher known as the Maverick of the North. Howard won re-election four years later before being defeated in 1986.

He retired to Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver, where he lived with his third wife, Joane Humphrey, a journalist known professionally as J.J. McColl. A first marriage, to Edith Horvath, ended in divorce, while a second marriage, to Julie Peacock, ended with her death from cancer in 1999. The late-in-life romance with Ms. Humphrey - the bride was 65, the groom 77 when they enjoyed a June wedding in 2002 - animated the couple, who remained devoted to one another until her death six years later from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease).

Known for his prized Christmas fruitcakes, Howard's hobbies included gardening and photography. He wrote the draft of a science-fiction novel and was designing a board game based on politics at the time of his death.

Like many who make a grievous mistake when young, he was haunted throughout his life by his past.

"I'm grateful to the general public for its acceptance of the fact that a teenage blunder can be overcome and forgiven," he wrote. "But the blunderer must continue to prove to himself, and therefore to others, that overcoming the blunder is permanent."

Howard leaves stepchildren Danielle and Anthony Peacock from his second marriage. He was predeceased by a son from his first marriage, Robert Howard, who died in 1986.

Special to The Globe and Mail