Reading in Troubling Times: The Memoirs of Winnipeg’s Relentless Rebel

Nick Ternette, Rebel Without a Pause: A Memoir. Halifax: Roseway Publishing, 2013.

From his student days in the late 1960s until his death in 2013, Nick Ternette was known in Winnipeg as a tireless advocate for the poor and homeless, an activist for civil and human rights, and a campaigner for improving life for all Winnipeggers. While he knew his Marx and Engels, he was not driven by ideology. Rather than changing the world through revolution, he set himself the task of addressing the small, everyday concerns of ordinary people in Manitoba. This required gritty work: he applied for police permits, invited speakers, and, rain or shine, he was out on the streets protesting; he attended countless city council meetings, wrote hundreds of letters-to-the-editor and opinion pieces to local newspapers, gave hundreds of interviews on local media, had his own newspaper column, and hosted his own radio and television shows. Democracy, to him, meant providing alternatives. From 1971 until 2002, he ran for mayor, city councilor, and school trustee twenty times. Given his Marxist views, he never expected to win and indeed he never did, but he succeeded in giving Winnipeggers a choice.

Nick was born in Berlin, Germany in January 1945, just as the city was suffering from Allied bombings, the Red Army offense, and, after Nazi Germany’s capitulation in May 1945, Allied occupation. He grew up amid bombs and violence, suffering and poverty, injustice and ideology. In his memoirs, he writes little about his family. He was the only child of Georg and Seraphine Ternette. They were born in St. Petersburg, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and ethnic Russians. Seraphine came from an aristocratic family and studied art in Turkey before moving to Berlin. How Georg came to Berlin and ended up fighting for the German army in the Second World War is unclear. Nor do we know how, as an ethnic Russian, he survived imprisonment in the Soviet Union except that he served as a German-Russian interpreter, first for the German army and then for the Soviets. Nick grew up in postwar West Berlin as a Russian, speaking Russian, and attending the Russian Orthodox Church. He also spoke and learned German and attended public German school until he was ten years old, but being a Russian in postwar Germany was a challenge.

Around 1954, Georg immigrated to Winnipeg with the help of the Baptist church. His wife and son followed a year later. For Nick, this was a big change: “I went from being hated by Germans to being seen as a German in post-war Canada” (23). It is not clear from his memoirs why Nick was perceived as a German (rather than a Russia) in postwar Winnipeg; nor is it clear why he came to self-identify as a German rather than a Russian. Ten-year-old Nick “knew nothing about German history, especially about the Nazi period, because my parents didn’t tell me anything. Then I experience anti-German racism, when children began to bully me by calling me a squarehead and a Nazi. I had to learn my history and background quickly” (24). His father began telling him stories about the war when Nick was in his teens. Nick felt that even though he “had to deal with the issue of German guilt” through his life, he and his parents had not been Nazis and his father had suffered in a Soviet “concentration camp” after the war (25).

After high school, Nick attended the University of Winnipeg and received a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. He also became involved in local political youth groups and in the YMCA. His early career hopes of becoming a sports reporter on the radio were quashed by the national radio school in Winnipeg, where he was told he needed to get rid of his accent. Later careers were stifled by prospective employers’ fears of his left political views. In 1987, Nick got access to his RCMP files, proving that he had been under surveillance for decades. Yet, Nick’s demands were hardly subversive: he wanted better bus service, safe bike lanes, a vibrant downtown, support for the poor (instead of their policing and criminalization), a thoughtful (rather than a heavy-handed but ineffective) approach to panhandling, and greater care of the environment. For over four decades, he took on everyday issues and proposed solutions that had been accepted as common sense in other cities around the country.

Throughout his political life, the connection to Europe and especially to Berlin played an important role. In 1967 Nick traveled to visit a friend in Switzerland and aunts in Turkey and Greece. He then spent seven months in West Berlin, during the heady student protest days of 1968. The May Day demonstration in 1968 radicalized him politically. He drew on this experience for the rest of his political life. When he returned to Winnipeg, he organized his first public protest, against the Vietnam War, and he joined the peace movement. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as he deeply immersed himself in local politics and community organizing, he also followed with great interest the West German Green Party, which had come out of the peace movement, and he introduced Green thinking to Winnipeg civic politics.

Although he was considered by many of his opponents a communist, socialist, or leftist agitator, his ideas for improving city life were far from radical. As he points out in his memoirs, most ideas had not only been implemented in Western European cities or in Canada’s big cities, but even in places like Calgary, where Nick lived for five years in the 1980s and learned to appreciate the city’s environmental policies, including those implemented by mayor Ralph Klein. By playing on his political identity and outsider status, he skillfully used the local media to publicize his ideas.

How much his ethnic identity played a role in his political life is difficult to assess from his memoirs; there are only hints. About his time in Calgary, he writes, for example: “Being a Russian German was never an issue there [Calgary] the way it mattered in Winnipeg” (128). But he seldom gets around to telling us how his ethnic identity actually mattered in Winnipeg. We learn, however, that he was involved in the local German-Canadian club, where he enjoyed socializing with other German-Canadians. Eventually, however, the club “banned” him because of his political views. He also argued against the plan to display a piece of the Berlin Wall at the Forks (98).

Throughout his political life, Nick became active in a great range of causes and organizations. In 1968, he participated in the Free University of Winnipeg and the Festival of Life and Learning to improve higher education; he became involved in Klinic and the Community Representing Youth Problems of Today (CRYPT) to improve public health care; and he helped set up the Community Income Tax Service to protect poor people from being massively overcharged for filling out tax returns. These activities brought real improvements to people’s lives.

Rebel Without a Pause is an inspirational story of someone who devoted his life to everyday politics, the gritty, time-consuming, and drab work of organizing protests, attending city council meetings, making his opinion heard, taking abuse for it (including physical abuse from the police), and moving on, one day after the next, while also trying to make a living and enjoying life. Politics was not all-consuming. As he notes, he spent much more time coaching children in football, hockey, and baseball than demonstrating on Winnipeg’s streets (although he may hold the record of rallies attended and organized).

Rebel Without a Pause is not a manifesto, but a plain spoken narrative that clearly and convincingly lays out Nick’s life and ideas. It is a most timely book at a time when millions of people are trying to find ways to protect and improve their fellow citizens’ lives. Here is an action guide by someone who knows, because he was there and did it for over forty years: it is everyday labour, courageous, exhausting, tenacious, and hard. Nick described himself as a “professional rebel,” but more than that, he was a relentless rebel. Even though he was relentless and encountered much opposition, he never let politics ruin a relationship. He enjoyed discussions with his political foes. He could agree to disagree without taking recourse to the hatred and venom that increasingly infuses national politics. In local politics, your political opponent may be your co-worker, your kid’s soccer coach, or your neighbour. That was true of Nick, who enjoyed talking with everyone, whether he agreed with him or not. In the end, it was always an opportunity for Nick to make a point, to make his point. For this broad vision, marginalized as it may be in Western politics, this slim book should appeal not just to Manitobans and Canadians, but to everyone who wants to know what it means to be a relentless rebel.

Alexander Freund, University of Winnipeg