For as long as most Winnipeggers can remember, Nick Ternette’s voice echoed off the edges of their streets, always ringing out from the head of the march, the front of the parade. When his legs were taken away, his wheelchair rolled along instead, still accompanied by the same blustery voice pressing governments for fewer circuses, and so much more bread.
“What do we want? Peace,” he’d chant. “When do we want it? Now!”
Now that voice has fallen silent: Mr. Ternette was 68 on March 3, when he died in Winnipeg at the St. Boniface Hospital’s palliative care ward, his body finally given out after months of illness. What he leaves behind: a gap at the head of progressive rallies, a blank space in the local letters to the editor, a hole on city government ballots on which he placed his name more than 20 times.
“He was in many ways the ultimate citizen,” said his oldest friend, former Winnipeg city councillor Lawrie Cherniack. “He just cared for other people, he had a clear moral imperative. He worked so hard for so many. He was what any responsible citizen should be, and more so.”
Mr. Ternette was born in West Berlin in January, 1945, the only child of mismatched parents: His mother, Serafina, was a young aristocrat who studied art in Turkey; his father, Georg, a working man who served a stint with the German army. As boys, Nick and his friends skirted between blocks of rubble, finding games to play among the shattered ruins of the city.
In 1955, his parents moved to Winnipeg, searching for fresh opportunity. Georg started working on the railway – he’d later work as a hospital orderly – and Serafina stayed home to paint and raise their son.
Nick was 10 when they came to Canada, and readily soaked up English. But at school in Winnipeg, his thick German accent betrayed him. Kids followed him down the street, taunted him, called him “Nazi” and “squarehead.”
“It was horrific for him,” his wife, Emily Ternette, said. “He was new to this country and didn’t know anything about it. And he didn’t know anything about the other [country] either. He finally told his dad, and his dad walked with him to school one day. The kids, of course, saw his dad and didn’t [taunt him]. His dad said, ‘Just ignore it. Don’t let them think they’ve won.’”
In that moment, Mr. Ternette later told Emily, he decided never again to care what anyone thought about him. And he never did.
Mr. Ternette was not known as a man of many social graces. He spoke too loud, and stood too close. He never remembered to wipe the milk from his tea saucer so it didn’t drip onto his shirt, and when it did, he never gave the stains much attention. “He was exactly who he appeared to be,” Mr. Cherniack said. “He was one of the most transparent people I’ve ever met. He just didn’t think about himself … he always thought of what he should be doing.”
The first time Emily met the man who would become her husband, in the fall of 1985, her first impression was that he was “dishevelled,” but this too was part of his charm. In 1993, they were married.
By then, Mr. Ternette had long been a fixture on Winnipeg’s activist scene. He got his first taste of organizing after enrolling at the University of Winnipeg’s United College (now the University of Winnipeg) in 1964, where he launched the school’s Social Action Movement Club. He taught courses on revolution for the hippie-era Free University, and learned how to make people listen. He embraced the term “radical” and started taking his bullhorn to the streets; in 1970, he was arrested protesting the price of Janis Joplin tickets.
But that was just the beginning, the start of more than 40 years of unrelenting activism in defence of human rights. After graduating with a sociology degree, Mr. Ternette worked for inner-city neighbourhood service centres and became an outspoken advocate for better housing. Later, the longtime kids’ hockey coach moved to Calgary to help run community centres.
In 1977, he launched his first campaign for Winnipeg mayor. He ran perennially thereafter, never expecting to win but hammering other candidates on issues affecting the city’s poor. He always came prepared with numbers and powerful arguments, gleaned from a voracious appetite for reading everyone from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand. He was a leftist, yes – but other than short stints helping the NDP and the Green Party, largely an independent one. His friends were socialists, moderates and even a conservative think-tank founder.
Mr. Ternette also wrote, a lot. He wrote countless letters to the editor, penned a column called Left Punch for Uptown Magazine, and served stints as a freelance writer and editor at a variety of progressive publications. He hosted a popular political talk show on local cable television, The Ternette Report, which he later turned into a weekly e-newsletter. He fought against corporate donations to political campaigns, and for better social housing, women’s rights and aboriginal rights.
Mostly, though, Winnipeggers heard Mr. Ternette’s voice in city hall, and on the streets. For decades, he served as head marshal of the annual Peace March, bullhorn perched against his lips; he led countless May Day parades, protests, marches. Most activist organizers in Winnipeg had his number on speed dial; if they called him to a rally, he would almost always arrive prepared to speak. If there was a secret to his unstoppable ability, “it would replace solar energy,” Mr. Cherniack said. “He was so available that people took him for granted.”
At city hall, Mr. Ternette was a fixture for more than 40 years. He regularly made presentations on issues he held dear, constantly challenging city expenditures and pressing council to consider the needs of low-income residents. In January, 2010, when Mr. Ternette announced he would “retire” from advocating in city politics, he was invited to give one last address to city council: He used it to argue against the city’s controversial purchase of a police helicopter.
By then, he had already struggled with his health. In 2005, Mr. Ternette was diagnosed with cancer, and promptly launched a campaign to ban carcinogenic pesticides. The ensuing chemotherapy wiped out his immune system, but Mr. Ternette refused his doctor’s advice that he stop working his paper route, or avoid crowds.
In the summer of 2009, an infection of flesh-eating bacteria forced the amputation of his legs.
After a stint in rehab, Mr. Ternette simply started packing his bullhorn and protest signs onto his wheelchair. Losing his legs didn’t slow him down. “He had made up his mind that it wasn’t going to get in his way,” Emily Ternette said. “He told everybody who would listen, the wheelchair was his legs now, and he’s just going to carry on the way he was before. He was just like … he just didn’t have any legs anymore, but ‘so what?’”
Still, Mr. Ternette’s body was weakening. In October, 2012, he contracted a cellulitis infection that left him reeling from powerful antibiotics. He lost his appetite, and rapidly lost weight; in February, doctors took him into palliative care. It’s still not clear why he couldn’t eat: It was as if his body just gave out, knowing his mind and will never would.
His last letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press was published on Jan. 14, written even as his body was dying. It’s a brief missive, one calling a proposed increase to city councillor’s ward budgets “absurd,” especially given the threat of cuts to non-profits such as Winnipeg Harvest, the food bank where he long filled hampers.
He leaves Emily and his daughter Tegan, from a previous relationship, and six grandchildren he loved above all. He also leaves friends of every political stripe and every rung on the social ladder.
“He always said that if enough people participated in the political process, and weren’t so scared off by it, we’d have a much better chance at creating democracy,” Emily said. “If more people actually gave a damn, and became involved as citizens, then we’d have a city that worked better, that made more sense.”
Mr. Ternette’s autobiography, Rebel Without a Pause, will be published this fall. His work will also live on through the Ternette Memorial Foundation, a trust held by the Winnipeg Foundation to support speakers and workshops on issues of democracy, social justice and poverty reduction.
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