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Friday June 24, 2011

From a cellblock to Centre Block

As a young man, he went to prison for armed robbery. Later, after becoming a union leader in the forestry sector, he went to Parliament Hill to be a voice for working people

Special to The Globe and Mail

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.

Howard, who died on March 15 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 it was 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.

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