The last time I talked to Nick Ternette was while we were both riding in an elevator. By chance, I was accompanying him to one of the frequent events he attended before his recent passing at age 68.
Ternette never passed up an opportunity to talk to the media, of which he was also a member (he wrote a column for Uptown magazine, entitled Left Punch), so he immediately engaged me in a conversation, emphasizing his thoughts about the need for more affordable housing for the less fortunate. He was fully aware of WinnipegREALTORS®-instigated housing such programs, such as the Housing Opportunity Partnership, which allows modest-income Winnipeggers to purchase nearly-renovated homes in the city’s West End, where he grew up. In fact, I can remember Ternette attending at least one of the ceremonies when a purchaser was introduced to the media and public.
Ternette actually agreed with WinnipegREALTORS® on some issues — though far from all — including the need to eliminate funding schools through property taxes. In addition, he was thankful that the Real Estate News occasionally gave him a venue to voice his social causes.
Always the political warrior, Ternette was constantly running for office, whether it was for mayor, city council or the provincial legislature. And when he ran for mayor, Ternette could also count on coverage of his positions by the REN as a result of WinnipegREALTORS® sponsoring successive mayoralty forums.
What the downtown needed to succeed was low-cost housing, Ternette said at the 1995 mayoralty forum. “That’s the real issue.”
At the same forum, Ternette reiterated his stand that school taxes should not be funded by property taxes. Here was a strong NDP supporter, taking a position that has not been addressed by the party since the New Democrats took office over a decade ago when Gary Doer became premier.
But Ternette was not necessarily tied down to partisan politics. He investigated issues in-depth and then arrived at his own conclusions. How else can you explain his position on taxes?
During the 2002 mayoralty forum, he said property taxes, business taxes and amusement taxes were all regressive taxes. According to him, the only route to be pursued was asking the province for a greater share of the income taxes it collected.
Ternette claimed that if elected mayor, he would abolish all “discriminatory forms of taxation.”
But he was never elected mayor. In fact, he rarely collected enough votes to be considered a serious contenter. In 2002, Ternette finished last in a five candidate field, garnering just 2,662 votes, while winner, Glen Murray, had over 103,000 votes cast in his favour.
Ternette, who was born in West Berlin in 1945 and came to Canada when he was 10 years old, was full of contradictions. For instance, in 1998, he supported Murray’s run for mayor, but when Murray was elected, he became one of the mayor’s most vocal critics.
Whenever asked, Ternette would declare himself to be a “political activist” interested in “social issues.”
He wasn’t so much interested in winning a political office, as showing Winnipeggers that they could become involved in making change. He never felt he was banging his head against a brick wall, but was someone who was helping to provide the mortar to build a better city.
Even when Ternette had both his legs amputated due to flesh-eating bacteria, he didn’t give up his activist role. He could be seen in his wheelchair at council meetings and attending events for civic causes he either supported or wanted to protest. At a peace rally in 2004, he was charged with organizing a rally without a permit, but he insisted — and it was probably true — that he was not one of the organizers. Undoubtedly, it was just a case of Ternette wanting to lend his support to a cause he considered to be worthwhile. Some of his friends believed his arrest was politically motivated.
Lloyd Axworthy, the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, where Ternette earned a bachelor of sociology and political science degree (1967), described the “activist” as an “authentic, dedicated and tireless advocate,” who “dedicated much of his life to the fight for fair treatment and justice for all.
“For more than four decades, he challenged all levels of government through, direct, participatory democracy, appearing frequently before committees and writing public letters to the editor on issues ranging from the environment to bus fares to effective civic planning. Nick was the personification of grassroots citizenry.”
Axworthy called Ternette one of the university’s most distinguished alumni, and was named as such in 2010. But his connection to the university didn’t end when he graduated, as Ternette was a visiting lecturer. In 2009, he and his wife, Emily, moved into McFeetors Hall, a new campus residence, where he continued to engage university students in political and social discussions until his death.
While residing in McFeetors Hall, Axworthy said Ternette continued “to navigate life from his wheelchair and his tenacity in the face of his changed circumstances inspired many.”
Perhaps the greatest understatement made following Ternette’s passing at St. Boniface Hospital on March 3 was made by Mayor Sam Katz, when he said: “he was well known to everyone here at city hall ...”
Of course, Ternette was well known at city hall. It was virtually his home away from home — he was constantly in the public gallery or at the presentation podium.
But like even those who considered his views as not compatible to their own, Katz saw Ternette for what he was — a dedicated activist, who’s “advocacy will not be soon forgotten.”
“At city hall and the legislature, Nick was never afraid to take a stand at committees and through correspondence,” said Premier Greg Selinger. “He lent his voice to countless Manitobans who would not have otherwise and enriched our democracy in doing so.”
There were some who regarded Ternette as “off-the-wall,” but that is far from the truth. Anyone who engaged him in conversation can attest to his political knowledge. Few were as well-versed as he in the nuances of city hall and the Manitoba Legislature. He may have been a failure in elections, but no one could accuse him of not being aware of the issues or of not having well-grounded arguments about his viewpoints.
Many may have disagreed with Ternette’s politics, but they respected his commitment.
Few individuals were so dedicated to the well-being of Winnipeg and Manitoba as Ternette. As such, he will be sadly missed.