Queen’s University political scientist Ned Franks was for decades Canada’s commanding academic voice on parliamentary rules, procedures and morality. His advice was sought by House of Commons committees, government and parliamentary agencies, Royal Commissions, governors-general and every major media outlet in the country.
Not surprisingly, he was once introduced to an audience as “the rock star of Canadian politics.” Last month in Kingston, he died of prostate cancer. He was 81.
International human-rights lawyer Fiona Sampson tells a story of Ned Franks in the round – the whole Ned Franks – that touches on so much of what defined him.
It was the summer of 1994 on the Mountain River, perhaps Canada’s most prized whitewater canoe route, passing through six stunning canyons and sheer cliff walls as it drops 1,200 metres along its 370-kilometre course in the Northwest Territories to where it joins the Mackenzie River just south of the Arctic Circle.
Ms. Sampson, a long-time friend of trip guide Shawn Hodgins of Wanapitei Canoe and Northern Outdoor Expeditions and herself an accomplished canoeist, describes the party as “parliamentary royalty.” House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is there, along with eight or nine leading members of Parliament – and Mr. Franks.
Mr. Franks was a true artist with a paddle, although, as Mr. Hodgins wryly observes, an opinionated one; his son-in-law, astronomer Gary Davis, says Mr. Franks was not gentle as a canoeing tutor. The amazingly eclectic book The Canoe and White Water is Mr. Franks’s account of the canoe and history, of canoe-making, of the canoe and law, of the canoe and physics, of canoes and art, of canoeing and safety.
On a hike up a mountainside during the Mountain River trip, the comfortably fit Mr. Franks, at 58, robustly debates with Ms. Sampson, the only woman in the group, the notion of patriarchy. (He had supervised Ms. Sampson’s graduate thesis at Queen’s and became her close friend, as he befriended many of his brightest students and became their mentor and guide through life.)
At night around the campfire, he organizes the party into singing roles from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. He tells stories, he recites limericks and poetry, particularly the work of William McGonagall, widely recognized as the worst poet in British history.
Charles Edward Selwyn (Ned) Franks was born in Toronto on Oct. 23, 1936. He was the son of Selwyn Thompson Franks of Weston, Ont., and the former Mabel Mary Sunder of Gaya, India, and descended from a long line of engineers (including his father) and doctors. He attended Upper Canada College followed by Queen’s for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and then went to Oxford for his doctorate.
Following his Oxford graduation, he worked four years for the government and Legislature of Saskatchewan before taking an academic posting at Queen’s, where he taught for more than 35 years in the Department of Political Studies with a cross-posting in the School of Physical and Health Education (he was an accomplished skier and triathlon competitor) and later became professor emeritus.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate Mr. Franks’s influence from the 1970s onward on how Canadians saw their parliamentary and government institutions. He was the go-to person for the media in explaining parliamentary and constitutional crises and complex and arcane procedures. Seldom more than a month went by when he wasn’t quoted or writing media comment essays. He was a researcher and analyst for the 1977-81 Royal Commission of Inquiry into Certain Activities of the RCMP (the McDonald Commission) and the 2004-06 Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities (the Gomery Commission). He wrote what has become the classic text on parliamentary procedure, The Parliament of Canada (1987), and, during what his family called his “spook period,” wrote Dissent and the State (1989).
He advised former auditor-general Sheila Fraser on government and parliamentary accountability throughout her 10-year term (2001-11), and was an adviser to Maria Barrados, head of Canada’s Public Service Commission from 2003 to 2011. He wrote about what the Senate actually accomplished.
He wrote scathing criticisms of the practice of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government of introducing bloated 500- and 800-page so-called budget implementation bills containing legislative provisions completely unrelated to the budget, which MPs would have no time to analyze. “[They] reduce the House of Commons to making noises and rubber stamping,” he said.
He expertly picked apart Mr. Harper’s use of prorogation to avoid a non-confidence vote against his minority government, calling it a display of casual arrogance toward Canada’s institutions. Mr. Franks pronounced on whether senators can be fired, on the importance of private members’ bills, on the significance of social-media threats to cabinet ministers, on the Arctic and Indigenous self-government, on interpreting voter turnout numbers and many other topics. He advised legislative groups in Vietnam and Russia and academics in India.
Queen’s principal Daniel Woolf said of him: “Queen’s and Canada have lost a great political scientist in Ned Franks.”
He was a fly-fisher, duck hunter (he once pulled out porcupine quills with his teeth from the muzzle of the family’s retriever, Simon), photographer, watercolour painter, wine collector, cook and aficionado of bad puns. He grew outstanding heirloom tomatoes. He took Simon to university meetings. When Simon got restless, the meetings had to end.
Perhaps above all, he loved his students and they loved him, a number becoming his lifelong friends, meeting in his office for sherry on Friday afternoons, working for him as researchers, spending summers with him and his family at their cottage in Caledon East, north of Toronto, dubbed The Shack (a “shack” partly designed by Ron Thom, the architect of Trent University and Massey College).
“He was a very gifted teacher for those who were interested in what he was interested in,” said Liane Benoit, a former student and principal of public affairs company Benoit and Associates. “He enjoyed watching their careers develop, enjoyed watching them develop as individuals, particularly in his later years. He was just very, very interested in the people he taught.”
He took them to Ottawa to meet politicians, journalists and officials of the House of Commons. He invited them to his house for parties that lasted until 4 a.m.
He nicknamed Ellen Sealey Emsbury Urchin No. 1. “He said to me one day, ‘You’re just like a street urchin from Dickens.'” And it stuck. He later dubbed three classmates Urchin No. 2, 3 and 4.
Mr. Franks proposed the toast to the bride at Ms. Emsbury’s wedding and gave her husband a copy of the British Special Air Service survival guide. “This is how life with Ellen is going to go,” he told him.
She now practises fertility and employment law in Calgary. She said Mr. Franks reached out to students who were bright and struggling. “I wasn’t struggling academically, but I had a very difficult and terrible relationship with my father and Ned became a substitute father for me.”
In several cases, he rescued his students and helped them get on their feet, said his son Peter Franks, an oceanographer. “They owe their careers to him in many substantial ways,” he said.
Toronto litigation lawyer Will McDowell studied with Mr. Franks before Ms. Emsbury, and so became known as a pre-urchin. When he was struggling to find a summer job to meet his law school expenses, Mr. Franks offered to pay him to cut trees for fence-posts from a swamp on the property. Mr. McDowell worked with a chainsaw through the summer. When he returned years later, the trees were stacked where he’d left them. “This was a Depression-era work project, created to help me out,” he said.
Monique Jilesen, a Toronto commercial litigation lawyer, was Urchin No. 2. As she struggled financially to get through law school, Mr. Franks offered to help. “I was too proud to take that help but it meant so much to me that he would even think about it. He was my friend and mentor and biggest supporter after my mother. “
Vasuda Sinha, a lawyer now practising in Paris, was a post-urchin. On her graduation day at Queen’s, she walked across the convocation stage and a voice behind her said, “Now Vasuda, be still. I’m here.” It was Ned Franks in academic regalia, who had stepped in front of the principal to hood her.
Ms. Sampson, the human-rights lawyer (and a pre-urchin) recalls from the Mountain River trip: “Sometimes at the end of the paddling day when we were making camp, and individuals were setting up the tents, settling in for the night at a campsite … I would hear Ned quietly call out Tim’s name – every time it sounded like his heart was breaking all over again. Ned cherished Tim, as he loved all his children – his love for them and pride in them was tangible.”
Tim, Mr. Franks’s younger son, died by suicide in 1989 at Harvard University, where he was doing his doctorate. He was 25. He had been molested as a child by choirmaster John Gallienne at St. George’s Cathedral, in Kingston, which left him deeply disturbed. His parents learned about the abuse from Tim’s girlfriend after his death.
In the face of resistance from the Anglican Diocese of Ontario and many of St. George’s congregants, Ned Franks and his wife, Daphne, made it their cause to have Mr. Gallienne removed from the church and criminally charged. They also learned the names of other boys who had been molested and compelled the church to pay for their counselling.
“I’m forever so admiring of my parents that in the midst of this overwhelming and intense grief … that their first thought was that there were other boys that needed help,” said their daughter, Caroline Franks Davis, a religious philosopher.
Just days before Mr. Franks died, Ms. Sampson visited him with her 12-year-old daughter, Maureen. He looked deep into Maureen’s eyes and quoted Robert Frost’s poem Dust of Snow to her:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued
Ms. Sampson said her daughter was enchanted by the poem and memorized it when she got home. “It’s a legacy she’ll always have from him.”
Mr. Franks, who died on Sept. 11, leaves his wife of 61 years, Daphne (née Berlyn); his daughter, Caroline; son Peter; granddaughter, Gillian Franks; and sister, Anne Montagnes. In his final days, as his voice faded, he recited Shakespearean sonnets to his nurses at Kingston’s Providence Care Hospital.
A memorial gathering will take place at Queen’s University next month.