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Winnipeg's libertarian socialist: RIP

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Gadfly, anarchist, troublemaker. These are some of the words I heard used to describe Nick Ternette when I moved to Winnipeg in the 1990s. Somehow none of it seemed to fit the first time I encountered him one bright spring morning delivering newspapers on a street in Wolseley. In retrospect, I see that I had stumbled onto Winnipeg's most humble and colourful intellectual.

Nick, who died March 3, was hard to peg down. He was Winnipeg's most famous community activist, a passionate crusader for the downtrodden, and an eclectic thinker who wasn't afraid to speak his mind in spite of conventional political prejudices.

From the start, we had friendly arguments about simplistically pigeon-holing policies as being left or right wing. He called himself a leftie, adamantly but respectfully describing the Frontier Centre as a "new right" think tank, whatever that meant.

Early on, he scolded some colleagues for allowing the "right" to appropriate a good left-wing idea after Frontier commented favourably on the concept of the guaranteed annual income, which would end all income-related social programs in exchange for an annual flat payment from government.

Things moved on and he said our two solitudes would benefit by exchanging ideas. He became a fixture at the annual Frontier Christmas party, while I was honoured to find myself on his birthday party guest list.

Frontier purposely chooses to operate outside the traditional left-versus-right paradigm to avoid bogging down in the tiresome, predictable dialogue we've become used to in Winnipeg and Manitoba politics.

Nick eventually got that. We agreed that government could actually achieve good things with smarter public policy. Much common ground was to be found if we left the old labels behind.

Nick was not your garden-variety, one-size-fits all, big-government leftie typically found comfortably ensconced in well-connected public-sector job. He was from the segment of the "left" that believes power should flow from the bottom up, not from the top down.

That he was not a big central planner was obvious in a 2009 lecture he gave to the Frontier Centre where he deftly demolished the 1971 Winnipeg Unicity amalgamation, mapping out how it empowered the suburbs and the bureaucrats at the expense of a declining downtown.

He also understood that the goal of city services was to serve the citizens first. In 1999, much to the chagrin of CUPE, he endorsed the so-called Indianapolis model of service delivery, where city employees were given the freedom to operate as business units in competition with private vendors.

Why not? It was a bottom-up model that saved millions that were diverted into infrastructure improvements while generating gain-sharing bonuses for workers.

Nick believed government should work for the many, not for the few. At city hall, where he was a constant fixture at public hearings, he frequently criticized the lack of transparency in civic institutions. He was well aware of Winnipeg's "inside baseball" problem between elected officials and property developers.

That issue fit one of his more colourful social-justice narratives -- that the little people get screwed when policy is perverted into "socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor."

The same theme emerged after he met with another Frontier guest speaker -- Russell Means, the controversial former leader of the radical American Indian Movement. Nick wrote how he agreed with Means' view that corporate capitalism and corporate socialism are the same -- both being dangerous because they eliminate competition.

He also agreed with Means that "we need to get rid of the Department of Indian Affairs because it perpetuates dependency rather than independence."

In 2006, he interviewed the iconic Christopher Hitchens who was speaking to a Frontier gala dinner about the busybody state.

Nick's resulting commentary (where he fascinatingly mentions that he had once met Raya Dunayevskaya, Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico) delved into the conflict between collective and individual responsibility. The socialist believes more in collective responsibility, he wrote, while the libertarian believes more in individual responsibility and he, like Hitchens, wanted to intertwine the two.

He was one with Hitchens' distaste for the busybody state, writing -- "I have long argued that 'small is beautiful' and less government is better -- especially in social issues like prostitution and freedom of speech."

Nick Ternette: citizen, libertarian socialist, friend. You will be missed.

Peter Holle is president of the Frontier Centre. Nick Ternette's 2009 lecture on Unicity can be found at http://www.fcpp.org/media.php/1188.

A tribute to Nick Ternette is to be held at the West End Cultural Centre Sunday starting at 1 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2013 A17

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