Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Provocateur' was name-calling that Nick liked

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Accolades are pouring in for community activist Nick Ternette, who died on Monday, age 68. Many are praising Nick for "never ever giving up." It is ironic that it is this staying power that has resulted in most of the praise, because so many Winnipeggers are rather late getting to the grace table.

Nick was often ridiculed, scorned, laughed at and downright abused throughout his lengthy career, and it is only recently that many have come to see the virtue he carried throughout his life.

A prime example of this took place in the 1980s when I was tasked with producing a series of vignettes for CKND to serve as "interstitial fill." (Basically, to make up for the shorter running times of American programming that was created to allow more commercials per hour than was allowed in Canada.)

The theme of one such series was "Homebodies." It would feature local citizens who remain fiercely loyal to Winnipeg despite obvious reasons for them to relocate elsewhere.

For example, Izzy Asper was a media mogul and venture capitalist, and it made much more sense for him to be located in the media centre of Canada or on Bay Street, which is, of course, Toronto. Kathleen Richardson could be putting her feet up in a warm climate but she toughs out our Winnipeg winters. The series would give us an idea of what makes Winnipeg special and was an obvious civic boost so we attracted a number of corporate sponsors.

But when I wanted to profile Nick Ternette as part of the series, the sponsors balked. And some of the things they had to say about Nick weren't very nice.

I first met Nick when he was a community development worker at the former Neighbourhood Services Centre. His job was to organize citizens to stand up for their rights so you could often find him at demonstrations during the 1960s and 1970s. I admit that with his thick accent, extreme left-wing politics, stringy hair and habit of waving his hands wildly, I thought he was a bit of a flake. And when Nick kept running for mayor and city council without getting very many votes, people questioned his credibility and motives.

But as I got to know Nick, I could see that his heart was in the right place. I used to say, "Nick will give you the shirt off his back, but he might have some trouble unbuttoning it!"

And then I discovered what an encyclopedia of civic knowledge Nick was. The man knew the history, bylaws, operations and everything else you could imagine about city hall. I noted that any mayor of Winnipeg would be wise to kidnap Nick and lock him up in a file cabinet to be pulled out whenever insight to the workings of our civic administration and politics was needed.

I began to see Nick's image turn when I moderated a debate for mayor at the Aboriginal Centre the last time Nick ran. Numerous people came up to me after the debate and expressed surprise as in "Holy cow! I didn't know that Ternette fellow knew so much. I had heard he was kind of a flake."

But we all got to know Nick for what he truly was in his later years. We couldn't help it. Despite what you thought of him, Nick made news and he was on our radios and TV screens and in our newspapers. Eventually it got through that he really knew what he was talking about even if you disagreed with his approach.

And you knew he believed in what he said. Anybody with that kind of staying power against all forms of popular opinion had to be sincere.

I remember one time Nick was reading an article about himself in the newspaper and his faced literally beamed. It seems the reporter had called Nick a name he actually liked.

The copy read, "Nick Ternette, a self-styled agent-provocateur."

Yeah, that was Nick all right.

Nick Ternette gave Don Marks his first job in television producing The Ternette Report on Videon Community Access TV.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2013 A11

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