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Post­hu­mous mem­oir lifts cur­tain on Winnipeg’s pro­fes­sional leftie

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - Re­viewed by David O’Brien

Four pages of re­views

NICK Ter­nette was Winnipeg’s Pub­lic Rad­i­cal No. 1 for more than four decades, yet very few peo­ple un­der­stood who he was and what made him tick. In Rebel with­out a Pause, his post­hu­mous mem­oir mod­estly pro­duced by a left-wing pub­lish­ing house, Ter­nette fills in the blanks with a por­trait that is both in­ter­est­ing and en­ter­tain­ing, if not en­tirely flat­ter­ing. By the time he died last March at age 68, Ter­nette be­lieved he hadn’t ac­com­plished much in his life, but he had no re­grets. He was also aware main­stream politi­cians never took him se­ri­ously, even if they tol­er­ated his pres­ence. That’s why no one was more sur­prised than he when the Winnipeg es­tab­lish­ment, in­clud­ing some who loathed his so­cial­ist hec­tor­ing, re­sponded with kind­ness and gen­eros­ity in 2009 when he lost his legs to flesh-eat­ing disease fol­low­ing com­pli­ca­tions with can­cer. The Univer­sity of Winnipeg, which evicted him dur­ing one of the 400 demon­stra­tions he or­ga­nized or at­tended in his life, named him a dis­tin­guished alum­nus and of­fered him a two-bed­room suite at the stu­dent res­i­dence for him and his wife, Emily. Do­na­tions were made to char­i­ties in his name, peo­ple stopped him in the street, hugged him and thanked him for his ser­vice. For­mer mayor Su­san Thomp­son, with whom he quar­relled end­lessly, called him “a his­toric fig­ure” who should have a park named af­ter him. A trust fund es­tab­lished to help the cou­ple cope quickly swelled to $30,000. The ac­co­lades went on and on, and ac­cel­er­ated af­ter his death. Bull­horn Nick, as he was known, was baf­fled by it all be­cause “truth be told, I had not ac­com­plished that much in Winnipeg.” There were a few vic­to­ries, such as the work he did with a young Greg Selinger in 1971 in set­ting up a free in­come tax ser­vice for the poor, but “they were few and far be­tween.” Many young peo­ple in the 1960s held rad­i­cal left­wing views, but as Ter­nette him­self says, most of them even­tu­ally mod­er­ated their opin­ions and got on with their lives. But not Ter­nette. He was a Marx­ist Peter Pan trapped in his own Nev­er­land of ide­ol­ogy and pub­lic protest against the pi­rates of cap­i­tal­ism. He some­times stretched his prin­ci­ples to the point of ab­sur­dity, such as when he turned down a job with the Men­non­ite Cen­tral Com­mit­tee be­cause he wouldn’t ad­mit to be­ing a paci­fist, a con­di­tion of em­ploy­ment. In his view, no one who par­tic­i­pates in “the vi­o­lent sys­tem of cap­i­tal­ism” can be a paci­fist. He laments the de­cline of 1960s-style rad­i­cal­ism — “then you were part of a gen­er­a­tion. Now, you are just a wacko” — but, in fact, there is a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivism ex­pressed in the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment, the oc­cupy move­ment, anti-glob­al­iza­tion and abo­rig­i­nal mil­i­tancy. Ter­nette, of course, sup­ported all th­ese groups, but from a Marx­ist point of view. For him, noth­ing would ever im­prove un­til the state with­ered away and there were no more cap­i­tal­ists. His sin­gle-minded com­mit­ment to rad­i­cal­ism and end­less protest­ing, com­bined with ec­cen­tric per­sonal be­hav­iour, doomed him to poverty and ridicule, but he didn’t care. The pur­suit of a just and equal so­ci­ety, and the end of cap­i­tal­ism, was all that mat­tered to him. Ter­nette was aware from an early age some­thing was wrong with him. He says he may have suf­fered from ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der or, pos­si­bly, Asperger syn­drome. He traces his per­sonal prob­lems — he was of­ten in ther­apy, in­clud­ing Freudian psy­cho­anal­y­sis — to a dif­fi­cult childhood that left him un­able to ex­pe­ri­ence or demon­strate in­ti­macy. The only child of a love­less mar­riage, Ter­nette grew up in Ber­lin dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. His mother was born in Tur­key of Rus­sian no­bil­ity, while his fa­ther was also Rus­sian and served as an in­ter­preter for the Ger­man army in Rus­sia, where he was cap­tured and held in prison un­til 1948. His mother was a painter, but her only por­trait of her son pre­sented him as “to­tally asym­met­ri­cal, al­most hideous, and I am left to won­der about that the rest of my life.” For the first 10 years of his life in Ger­many, he was hated as a Rus­sian. When the fam­ily moved to Winnipeg, he was de­spised as a Nazi be­cause of the Ger­man ac­cent he, strangely, never lost. As a boy, he wanted to fit in, but he ended up the per­pet­ual out­sider. Win­nipeg­gers who knew Ter­nette will find Rebel With­out a Pause a fas­ci­nat­ing read, if oc­ca­sion­ally dis­jointed, and it also has some in­ter­est­ing ob­ser­va­tions about the city’s left-wing fringe and the amaz­ing ar­ray of rad­i­cal groups in the ’60s and ’70s. Ter­nette knew them all, in­clud­ing the Black Pan­thers, and he even stormed the streets in Ger­many dur­ing the stu­dent ri­ots of the late 1960s. There are many well-told sto­ries and anec­dotes, such as the $500 pay­ment (bribe?) he ac­cepted not to run against Ralph Klein in his first bid for the mayor’s job in Cal­gary — where he lived briefly in the early 1980s — or the time he vis­ited then pre­mier Ed Schreyer in his home on Christ­mas Eve with a pe­ti­tion wrapped as a present. Ter­nette may not have un­der­stood the af­fec­tion he was shown at the end of his life, but there is no doubt it was real. And while he ques­tioned his own im­por­tance, he served for decades as a faith­ful watch­dog and pro­vided a voice and fo­rum for those, like him­self, who felt marginal­ized and ig­nored. Bull­horn Nick was a Winnipeg orig­i­nal, the city’s last full-time rad­i­cal. Pol­i­tics in the city just isn’t the same with­out him.

He was a Marx­ist Peter Pan trapped in his own Nev­er­land of ide­ol­ogy and pub­lic protest against the pi­rates of cap­i­tal­ism.

David O’Brien is a mem­ber of the Free Press ed­i­to­rial board.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIES

Nick Ter­nette may have ques­tioned his own im­por­tance, but he served for decades as a faith­ful watch­dog and pro­vided a voice for Win­nipeg­gers who felt marginal­ized and ig­nored.

Rebel With­out a Pause

By Nick Ter­nette Rose­way, 156 pages, $20

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