Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In his words... Nick Ternette

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Nick Ternette, who died in March, was Winnipeg's best-known social justice and political activist. For four decades, he rattled cages in halls of government, he harangued politicians, he fought for the poor and disabled. His autobiography, Rebel Without A Pause: A Memoir, will be launched Nov. 4 at McNally Robinson Booksellers, starting at 7 p.m. It will include readings by Fred Penner, Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Nick's wife, Emily. The following is an excerpt.

On May Day 1968, I marched with 15,000 people to Kreutzburg, a working-class area in Berlin, for a peaceful demonstration. That march radicalized me. I saw police taking students who had probably nothing to do with the demonstration and beating them with clubs. My reaction was to want to meet militancy with militancy.

May Day has been important to me ever since. It saddens me that so few come out to commemorate the creation of the eight-hour workday. The workers of Chicago were working 10 to 14 hours a day in 1886 and 250,000 gathered in Haymarket Square to protest. Only guns and bombs could disperse them. Eight of the Haymarket activists were arrested, one of whom was sentenced to 15 years in prison while the other seven were sentenced to death. Four of them were hanged, one killed himself in prison, and the other two had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Before the end of the century, marches were happening all over the world and continue until today. I spend the year looking forward to singing "The Internationale" on May Day.

There were teach-ins all over the place in Berlin at that time. Politics was part of every conversation. People were constantly talking. I never saw or experienced anything like it before or since. On every street corner people aged eight to 80 were talking, asking why the students were doing this, what was going on. Everybody was involved. Not that everyone was an activist, but they were all asking questions and talking. It was a city that cared about itself and what it was. The student demonstrations only lasted a week, but it was an unbelievable feeling. It was like an electric shock that wakes everybody up. And you're talking about a city of two million people. There wasn't anybody who didn't have an opinion about something or other, and cared about it.

Nothing in my 40-plus years of activism felt like that week. My life-long frustration comes from knowing that kind of potential at a young age. I know people can be that alive. Those who have never experienced the power of a united, concentrated movement can't understand it in the same way as those of us who have.

... I went to Prague... just weeks before the Russian invasion on Aug. 20, 1968. It was called the "Dubek era" of so-called "humanist socialism," as the Czechs were defining themselves as unique from the Russians. So much was happening all over the world. The unrest continued in Europe. Robert Kennedy was shot, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot -- these were heavy times. I met Czech students and they all suspected the Russians were going to invade. The hostility permeated everything but they all had questions for me. "What's going on? Why did Martin Luther King get assassinated? What's going on with the riots?" I had the role, the perfect role for a Canadian, of not belonging in any one camp but being able to talk to and relate to everyone. It was important for me to identify myself as a Canadian who spoke German. My Russian background would have made me persona non grata in Czechoslovakia.

Protests would happen spontaneously. A rumour came out that Cuba had been involved in the Kennedy assassination and the same day there were hundreds of students outside the Cuban embassy protesting. I was back in Canada when the invasion came, but there were protests in Berlin before I left and I read about them in German newspapers back in Winnipeg. They were anti-Stalin protests and were a different lot than those protesting the Vietnam War, as these European tensions meant so much more to the people in Berlin, more than the war. It was a heady time. You were kept busy just trying to understand the political changes that were tumbling all over the place.

Becoming a peace activist seemed a natural thing. I had the childhood experience of the ravages of war and the teenage experience of the kind of bigotry that fuels war. To that, I added my brief but educational "inside" experience of the military followed first by some passionate and brilliant professors and then being in the very middle of the student movements in Europe. When I came back to Canada, I was able to bring all these experiences together with other progressives. I am a designer peace activist.

-- Rebel Without A Pause: A Memoir, by Nick Ternette. Roseway Publishing, 2013: p33-34.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 26, 2013 D3

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