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Harry Rankin was born in Vancouver on May 8, 1920. The son of garment worker George Rankin, Harry Rankin grew up in East Vancouver's Mount Pleasant district, and was apprenticed to be a baker at age 14 1/2. In 1939, the 19 year old Rankin enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders Infantry and departed for England in December of the same year. He served overseas until late 1944 and participated in the invasion of Sicily. As a war veteran Rankin was able to obtain a B.A. and a law degree from the University of British Columbia. He was called to the bar and opened his own law practice in 1950. Harry Rankin's involvement with civic politics began in the early 1950s when he joined the Grandview Ratepayers' Association. The first of many unsuccessful bids for election began in 1953 when he ran as an independent candidate for the School Board. In 1957 he decided City Council was a more appropriate arena for his ambitions. He contested aldermanic elections unsuccessfully every year until 1966, when he was finally elected. Rankin attributed his early electoral failures in part to the lack of the kind of organized support that an organized party could provide. In 1968 however, on the initiative of the Vancouver & District Labour Council, the Committee of Progressive Electors (C.O.P.E.) was formed. Rankin ran on the C.O.P.E. aldermanic slate in every election thereafter, and remained on City Council until November 1986. In 1986, he stood as C.O.P.E.'s mayoral candidate and lost to Gordon Campbell of the Non-Partisan Association (N.P.A.).
Besides the role of a lawyer and politician, Rankin was a social activist. Rankin advocated for tenant rights, the working class, Indigenous, Vancouver's downtown eastside, and many disadvantaged groups and individuals.
Harry Rankin passed away in 2002. Further biographical information, particularly about Rankin's career as a lawyer, is available in his autobiography, Rankin's Law: Recollections of a Radical, published by November House, Vancouver, 1975. In 2018, a documentary film, The Rankin File: Legacy of a Radical, was produced by Teresa Alfeld, which traces the life and career of Harry Rankin.