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A rebel with too many causes

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It was sometime in 1971 that I met my first radical. The details are hazy today, but it happened in a lecture hall at the University of Winnipeg, where someone was speaking to a large group of students about something that must have seemed interesting at the time.

Then, on the sloped stairway of the lecture hall, a scruffy-looking man with a Germanic accent interrupted the speaker and offered his own views on whatever it was that had brought us together.

That man was Nick Ternette, who had graduated a few years earlier, but who still haunted the halls of the university, which at that time were plastered with the posters and propaganda of the radical left, often with labels that would be meaningless to many students today.

"You were a Marxist-Leninist, weren't you?" I said to Ternette, 65, Wednesday at city hall, where he told council he was retiring from his career as a political activist and would no longer be speaking at civic meetings.

"No, no, no," he responded. "Don't call me a Leninist. I'm a Marxist."

It's actually an important distinction for those who study socialist theory, which was all the rage at that time, but which is now as obscure as the League of Nations.

As Ternette recalled, there were several Trotskyite groups on campus, in addition to Stalinists, Maoists, Marxists, Leninists and Marxist-Leninists, not to mention a spattering of anarchists, libertarians and others whose names have faded from memory. Women's liberation was still a somewhat radical concept.

It was common at the time for students to join some extra-curricular political group, and I signed up for the J.S. Woodsworth Society, only to discover it had ceased operating. I don't know why. Maybe it was too tame for the day.

Ternette had been a student prodigy of Lloyd Axworthy in the 1960s when Axworthy was a professor of political science and urban studies. He even joined the Liberal party briefly. By the end of the 1960s, however, Ternette took a hard left and settled on the political terrain that would define (even undermine) the rest of his life.

He joined or led every conceivable protest, including some that are hard to understand today. In 1971, for example, he became embroiled in a controversy at West Kildonan Collegiate as a leader of a socialist group that believed students should run schools and that going to school should be voluntary. He's been arrested many times in connection with his demonstrations, including once in 1970 for protesting the price of tickets to a Janis Joplin concert.

As a member of the NDP, which at that time had several radical socialists, Ternette rose to some prominence and was appointed to the committee that issued a report on the merging of Winnipeg's 13 municipalities in 1971. He rubbed shoulders with former premiers Ed Schreyer and Howard Pawley and ran for the presidency of the party seven times.

His contacts and profile helped him get jobs with the make-work social programs popular in the 1970s and early 1980s, but they never lasted. Some were closed down because of complaints they were run by communists, he recalls.

Time moved on, but not Ternette. He was eventually pegged as a "rent-a-radical" and even a "nobody," but he was unable or unwilling to change. His last decent job was promotions director for the left-wing magazine Canadian Dimension, but when he lost that job in 1992, there were few good job opportunities for public radicals. The best he could do was deliver newspapers, which he did until he was stricken by the disease that led to his legs being amputated last year. He also writes a column for a weekly newspaper.

It sometimes struck me that Ternette was the rebel with too many causes, or the rebel without a pause (he sought elected office 20 times), almost a parody of the radical protester. When I told him that Wednesday, he nodded his head. "I guess I didn't know how to say no," he explained.

He said many ad hoc groups with issues turned to him to help organize and lead their protests. He felt it was his responsibility as a citizen to help.

Only two or three people showed up to hear his final goodbye. One of them, Shirley Kowalchuk, said she came because "I admired his courage."

Kowalchuk said Ternette's determination to overcome his illness and the loss of his legs was also a metaphor for a man who never gives up, and won't say no. She said she believed his commitment to social causes was evidence of his "nurturing nature. He's like a caregiver."

Ternette is writing his autobiography and preparing for the end. He says when he dies, he wants a bullhorn and a red parade marshall's vest to be displayed prominently at his funeral. "These are the symbols of what I represent."

Although he will not lead protests anymore (which not everyone believes), Ternette said he plans to stay involved in the issues of the day.

"I'm an activist and I plan to die an activist."

He hopes someone will replace him, but if not, he could be the city's last full-time public radical.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 28, 2010 A10


Updated on Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 11:02 AM CST: Canadian Dimension has been operating continuously for 44 years, without interruption. Incorrect information appeared in a previous version of this article.

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