On Jan. 30, 2017, Ellen Frank, a loving mother and grandmother, cherished centre of an extensive network of family, friends and political allies, a life-long activist for women’s liberation, lesbian rights and all other human rights, author and filmmaker, passed away in Vancouver.
Despite receiving a multiple sclerosis diagnosis three decades ago, Ellen worked steadily and courageously in the years following the diagnosis, devoting her life to justice, love and freedom. She leaves many to mourn her and to remember her vibrant personality, her keen mind, her courage, and her sense of humour, which never faltered, even in her painful last months.
Ellen was grateful that recent federal legislation allowed her to choose the option of a physician-assisted death, which meant she ended her life the way she had lived it — on her own terms, with dignity and courage. In the last hour of her life, she told the friends and family members who had been gathering at her bedside for several weeks, singing, laughing, weeping and telling stories: “This has been better than I could have ever imagined.”
Ellen Frank was born May 27, 1947, in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Marian and Morris Novik. She grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. After high school, Ellen moved to Manhattan, where she met and married Ralph Frank. Together they travelled to Vancouver in 1969 and went on to spend a year in Israel.
Ellen gave birth to a son, Jesse, in 1970, and a daughter, Johanna, in 1972. In 1974, Leja Wright was born to Nikki Wright, a cherished and life-long friend to Ellen. Leja and Ellen formed an early and abiding bond, and Leja was recognized as a daughter to Ellen and sister to Johanna and Jesse in the extended family Ellen helped to create.
All three of Ellen’s children were able to be with their mother in her last days and provided, together with their children (Chedan, Riesha, Khyah, Nati, Faith, Indigo, and Ari), a rich experience of love and support for their cherished mother and bubbie. Ellen loved her children and grandchildren fiercely. Her greatest regret about her death was leaving the grandchildren she loved so much.
Much of Ellen’s work for justice was dedicated to women’s liberation and campaigns to end violence against women. She was a member of the Vancouver Rape Relief collective and went on to be a founding member of Women Against Violence Against Women.
Nora Randall, a long-time friend and ally in many of Ellen’s political struggles, told her friends, “Ellen Frank was a fighter, not just for herself. She always saw her struggles as the struggles of a larger community and she wanted to make things better for everybody. She described herself as a Jewish lesbian feminist mother, grandmother and activist. When her kids were small she got involved in the fight for more and better daycare.
“She joined the B.C. Federation of Women to fight for a broad range of women’s rights. She was an organizer in 1977 of an International Women’s Day Parade that took over Georgia Street during lunch hour. When the B.C. government brought in a neo-liberal budget in 1983, she fought with Women Against the Budget, a part of the huge solidarity movement.”
As a pioneer in Vancouver’s emerging lesbian rights and visibility movement, Ellen was tireless in promoting lesbian pride. In May 1981, she helped organize one of North America’s first documented lesbian pride marches, held in downtown Vancouver. Some 200 lesbians took part in the march, which was part of the Bi-National Lesbian Conference.
In the spirit of the Jewish principle of “tikkun olam,” the responsibility of all to help heal a wounded world, one of Ellen’s later projects involved organizing a discussion and mutual support group for Jewish and Palestinian women.
“As Aaron Devor, a life-long friend, told the mourners at Ellen’s funeral, “Ellen didn’t give in to MS She brought her courage to that too. She lived as fully as she possibly could as MS commandeered more and more of her. She wrote articles for the Jewish Independent and Shared Voices, the newsletter of the Lower Mainland Chapter of the MS Society of Canada. She wrote two books that shared some of what she had learned from having MS: Sticks and Wheels: An Accessibility Travel Guide to the Sunshine Coast, about resources available to people living with mobility challenges on the Coast, and Taking the Reins, about therapeutic horseback riding. All the while, she loved her kids and her growing pack of grandkids.”
Later, Ellen travelled widely and helped develop a co-operative travel agency.
Ellen Frank is survived and mourned by her children and grandchildren, her many friends and political allies, and by the congregation of the Or Shalom synagogue, where she worshipped. A memorial to honour Ellen Frank will be held on Sunday, March 5 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Employee Lounge of Langara College (100 West 49th Ave., Vancouver).
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