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


2016 German-Canadian Studies Research Grants and Prizes

In the following posts, the recipients of the 2016 German-Canadian Studies Fellowship competition present their research.

GCS Dissertation Prize

Now Too Much for Us: German and Mennonite Transnationalism, 1874-1944

Dr. John Eicher

John Eicher is the Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Migration at the German Historical Institute in Washington D.C.  His 2015 dissertation posed the question: How do groups of people fashion collective narratives as nations, religions, and diasporas? He found answers to this question through a comparative study of two German-speaking Mennonite colonies. One group was composed of voluntary migrants and the other was composed of refugees. Both lived on the Russian steppe until 1874 when the Tsar’s nationalizing reforms prompted 7,000 voluntary migrants to move to Canada and colonize the prairie. In 1926, Canadian nationalism prompted 1,800 of these migrants to relocate to Paraguay and colonize the Gran Chaco. Meanwhile, in 1929, Stalinist persecution prompted thousands of Russia’s remaining Mennonites to use their status as ethnic Germans as a way to flee to Germany. In 1930, the Paraguayan government welcomed 1,500 of these refugees to the Chaco. Both colonies used their identifications as “civilized” Germans to secure safe territories. They also shared a common German culture, language, and religion. Nevertheless, the groups negotiated radically different relationships with the Paraguayan and German governments. Whereas the voluntary migrants moved from frontier to frontier to preserve their local expressions of Germanness, the refugees viewed their Germanness as a transnational alliance that saved them from destruction. Consequently, the voluntary migrants sought exemptions from Paraguayan citizenship and rejected German (trans)National Socialism, while the refugees helped the Paraguayans win the Chaco War (1932-1935) and collaborated with Nazis. Like other German-speaking migrants and refugees, their different narratives of German history and interpretations of scripture led to vastly different views of Germanness and divergent relationships with coreligionists, host governments, and Germany.

Research for this project led him to archives in five countries–England, Germany, Paraguay, the United States, and Canada–including Winnipeg’s Mennonite Heritage Centre and the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies.


GCS Research Grants

The Concept of ‘Skills’ in Labor Migration Policies: A German-Canadian Comparison

Dr. Holger Kolb

There is probably barely any other political area in which Canada and Germany are commonly perceived as being more different than the field of labor migration policy. Whereas Canada have been enjoying an excellent reputation of having one of the most effective attraction schemes worldwide for a long time Germany still is considered as a country with a reluctant stance towards labor migration and corresponding complicated and restrictive regulations.

Against the background of major reforms of the respective labor migration systems in both countries in the last years I became interested in challenging the conventional wisdom of Germany and Canada still being classic antagonists in this field and started to systematically compare the policy developments in both countries. I began by specifically looking at the changes recent reforms implied for the screening and selecting process; then I analyzed the ‘temporal dimension’ of labor migration policy delving into the question to what extent the labor migration policies in both countries are used as short-term cure against acute shortages on the respective national labor markets or rather as a way of a demographically inspired population policy followed by a specific investigation into the ways the recognition of skills earned abroad legally and politically are used as means to organize the admission process .

In this way my recent work on the concept of ‘skills’ in labor migration policies is actually part IV of an ongoing series of German-Canadian comparisons. Methodologically it is placed at the interface between comparative law analysis and comparative policy analysis and seeks to retrace substantial changes in the way the target group of the labor migration polices of both countries is perceived and defined. The GCS research grant allows me to systematically incorporate parts of my previous work into a more general comparative framework and at the same to add time more empirical material to this comparative long-term project.

Refugee Stories: The Immigration and Resettlement of Germans in Western Canada, 1947-1960.

Dr. Kyle Jantzen

“Refugee Stories: The Immigration and Resettlement of Germans in Western Canada, 1947-1960” is a research project being undertaken by Kyle Jantzen, Professor of History, Ambrose University, along with History undergraduates and community volunteers. Our goal is to discover the history and memory of the postwar immigration of people from a variety of regional, social, and religious backgrounds from Germany and Eastern Europe and their resettlement in Canada. The project is funded in part by the University of Winnipeg’s Chair in German-Canadian Studies and Canadian Lutheran World Relief.

To date, we have engaged in three kinds of project work:

Networking: We have made contact with the Calgary chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia and various Lutheran officials, including Canadian Lutheran World Relief, resulting in a list of 200 potential interview participants and project volunteers, to be supplemented with contacts in Baptist, Mennonite, Catholic, and Church of God communities.

Compiling Resources: Based on input from scholars in the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (Halifax), the Lutheran Historical Institute (Edmonton), the University of Winnipeg Chair in German-Canadian Studies, and the Mennonite Historical Society of Alberta, we have compiled an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, and an interview guide.

Preparing Students: Eight third-year history students will be working with me on this project in the fall 2016 semester, with another 10 to 15 second-year students participating in the winter 2017 semester. Students are currently engaged in background reading, and will soon receive training in oral history interviewing and begin archival research and oral history interviewing.

In the coming months, I plan to work with these students and volunteers from the German-Canadian community to organize and conduct oral history interviews, and a reunion event for German-Canadians who immigrated in the 1940s and 1950s, along with their families.

Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University,

Another Kind of Immigrants

Dr. Ursula Baer

19th and early 20th century German and Swiss emigration policies at times encouraged the emigration of destitute young people who had grown up in the community’s or state’s care. Other (former) children ‘in care’ chose to immigrate to Canada in search for freedom and a chance of personal and professional success and happiness that was not readily accessible to ‘their kind’ in their countries of origin. The history of these once ‘un-familied’ immigrants is rarely the topic of history projects and is currently absent from history books. Nevertheless, their stories have been explored in fiction e.g. by German author Berthold Auerbach in Barfüßele (1856) and have been recorded in biographies e.g. Auswanderung ins Glück – Die Lebensgeschichte der Kathrin Engler by Walter Hauser (2002). Recent official apologies to former children ‘in care’ and their once considered “undesirable” and/or “non-conforming” families (Switzerland 2013) and other redress schemes (Austria, Germany, Switzerland) engender more forthcoming dealings with that past.

With the generous support of the German-Canadian Studies research grant, I was this summer able to visit the Hudsons’ Bay Company Archives in Winnipeg and the Glenbow Archives in Calgary. This research trip was part of preliminary inquiries into the long, international and diverse history of children ‘in care.’ One focus of my research trip was on the history of German, Swiss and Austrian immigrants who grew up in state care and came to Canada to find a new life. The second focus was on the history of Métis children of Austrian, German or Swiss decent, who were placed in Indian Residential Schools. The findings serve as a point of departure for interviews and further archival research. Some results will be published as a chapter in an upcoming essay collection tentatively planned for early 2017.

Ursula Baer, Ph.D. is currently teaching at the University of British Columbia. She teaches, among others, a course on the cultural representation of (former) children ‘in care.’ Baer is the recipient of a 2016 German-Canadian Studies Research Grant. She can be reached at

Goodbye Deutschland, Willkommen in Canada?:” German Immigrants to Canada after 2006 and their mediated lives with/for/after VOX

Dr. Eva-Sabine Zehelein

According to the International Migration Outlook 2016 (OECD), Germany is, together with the USA, the most attractive immigration country worldwide with an all-time high of at least 1 million new permanent entries in 2015. However, thousands of Germans leave their home country every year. Regardless of whether one sides with the “brain drain” or “brain circulation”-theory, the migration balance has for many years been and still is negative – more Germans emigrate than return. Yet to date barely anything is known about the socio-demographics and motives of German emigrants of the last years as well as about the individual consequences and effects of this cross-border mobility and self-chosen dislocation. The study International Mobil (2015), supported by a number of major German foundations and the Federal Institute for Population Research, provides a rare quantitative investigation of this phenomenon.

Based on a postmodern epistemology that maintains that reality and identity are (socially) constructed and constantly renegotiated in and through narrative my project employs a qualitative approach, i.e. narrative interviews, to shed light on the underexplored lives and migration stories of some (non-Mennonite) German families who have immigrated to Canada – especially Manitoba – within the last decade. Some families have also been part of Goodbye Deutschland, a very successful and popular German reality docutainment format nominated for a German TV-Prize for best Factual Entertainment in 2011. I wish to examine (auto) biographical narrative practices as sites where experiences and perceptions of life in the new foreign country, images of Germany and Canada before and after immigration as well as today, and a specific migrant/hybrid identity are constructed and renegotiated. In a second step of my project I analyze the TV-mediated docu-biographical dramatic narratives. I ask in which force field these narratives are situated, how the representational and narratological strategies employed create “factually based drama” (Izod) or docutainment and what this popular TV-format then “tells” about Germans as transnational migrants in a diasporic context.

The interdisciplinary North American studies project is thus situated at the intersection between migration studies, oral history, cultural studies (especially German-Canadian studies), as well as TV/film and media studies.

The comparative analysis of my select bodies of text might contribute, first, to the “Verstehen” of migration experiences as ongoing biographical processes, second, to a further elucidation of the nature of autobiographical narratives as identity construction processes and, third, to a clarification of the specific nature and effects of docutainment which, despite its recent proliferation and omnipresence, is still awaiting in-depth academic scrutiny. I also hope to contribute to a better understanding of this long-neglected yet exceedingly important group of migrants, the German diaspora.

The Beginnings of German-Canadian Historiography After the Second World War: The Case of Gottlieb Leibbrandt

Karen Brglez

My research project investigates the intellectual beginnings of German-Canadian historiography after the Second World War through an examination of the biography of Gottlieb Leibbrandt, author of Little Paradise and other publications in German-Canadian history. A Russian-German émigré, Leibbrandt had worked for Goebbel’s propaganda ministry, the Anti-Komintern and served on the eastern front as an interrogator of Russian prisoners-of-war. He had close connections with his brother Georg Leibbrandt and Karl Stumpp, who had conducted ethnographic research in the Ukraine for the Nazis and whose research in German-American history and genealogy was influenced by Nazi racial record-keeping. By 1952, Leibbrandt immigrated to Canada and helped establish several German-Canadian organizations in the postwar period. A founding member of the German-Canadian historical association, Leibbrandt authored numerous books and articles on the Germans in Canada.

With the support of the German-Canadian studies research grant, I was able to visit the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Lincoln, Nebraska where I examined Leibbrandt’s scholarly contributions in the 1930s to the Berlin based publication Deutsche Post aus dem Osten. To focus on his Canadian experiences, the grant also enabled me to conduct an interview with Leibbrandt’s son, Wolfram Leibbrandt in Gatineau, Quebec. Wolfram’s narratives contributed to my understanding of Leibbrandt’s émigré experiences in Germany and postwar Canada, and revealed his many social and political influences on the German-Canadian community. I also visited the National Archives in Ottawa which held several of Leibbrandt’s postwar publications, including correspondence between him and his fellow German-Canadian associates. Investigating the case of Gottlieb Leibbrandt reveals a fervent Nazi supporter that contributed to the anxieties of the interwar period by casting the Russian-Germans as victims in a struggle against “Jewish Bolshevism” in the East. As a Russian-German émigré scholar, he contributed to the Nazi ideological campaign against Bolshevism in the interwar period which was a significant factor in preparing the foundation for the Nazi plan of invasion and ethnic cleansing in the Soviet Union during the war years. Having never been forced to confront the past, Leibbrandt led a postwar life as a respected German-Canadian scholar that wrote on the experiences and perspectives of German immigrants in Canada.

Karen Brglez, M.A., is a research assistant for the German-Canadian Studies department at the University of Winnipeg.