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Winnipeg’s Greatest Citizen is Gravely Ill

 Street Sheet (Canada) 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) Nick Ternette has spent forty years of his life trying to highlight how the decaying fabric of conventional society is eroding the values that unite communities. Rodney Graham provides a personal account of a man who triumphed despite colossal adversity and spent a lifetime caring for the less fortunate.  - Rodney Graham

WINNIPEG, Canada - This passed Wednesday I went to visit Nick Ternette. He has in recent years, been battling cancer.  Then more recently came down suddenly with a flesh eating disease.  It almost cost him his life.  His blood cell count after his legs were amputated was below 100.  It is now still below 90.  A healthy person has a count of 900 up to 1600.  Now he may need a bone marrow transplant to survive.  It's been a gruelling, probably frightening experience for him - and Emily his wife.


I ran into Emily as I was just entering the cafeteria.  "He's sitting at the far end of the cafeteria," she said.  She wheeled off down the hall; Emily has been in a wheelchair for most of her life. I didn't know where she was going.  I've been a friend of Nick and Emily for many years.  I often spend Christmas Eve and/or Thanksgiving dinner at their house. A kindness I always appreciate. I have never had a family of my own. Never started one of my own as a consequence, perhaps. Nick, unlike Emily, has led a physical life.  He was a hockey coach at one time.  In fact, he enjoyed walking and delivering papers for years because it was one his number one way of rejuvenation and walking out frustrations.  He especially loved walking in protest marches!  Now he can no longer to that.


I saw Nick sitting alone in the second floor cafeteria at Health Sciences Centre.  As I walked slowly towards him he was sitting perpendicular to my approach a chill feeling overcame me. Guilt... In 2005 I sat in the Grace Hospital.  Alone.  I was never so helpless and alone.  He and Emily came to visit me then.  It's sad, the human condition.


You spend 15 years fighting injustice and being involved in social issues and then one of your best friends is dying or very ill and you can't think of him enough to go visit - but keep putting it off.  It's not unusual, sadly.  In fact it's quite common I've learned.  Perhaps - Especially if you had a rocky childhood and aren't close to family and relatives.  Were abandoned and demonize subsequently (Also common in our society), a theme I've brought to the attention of the public - or tried to for years. I had not one family member visit me in 2005 even though they were told I might die and nearly did die.  Even after leaving hospital care.  Yes, they did send cards… But remembering not being visited in the group homes, the foster homes, and then later the juvenile detentions…this is the experience of countless people who end up on the street homeless and often then become activists.  Our experiences are valuable in helping others and informing the public.  Nick was a small boy, a citizen of Berlin when Hitler's regime destroyed a continent.  He fought fascism and ignorance since his youth.  Now he battles for his life.


Perhaps I can justify my strange coldness. Perhaps it's a defence - in order to avoid hurt and sadness.  I don't know...  I'm not writing this because I think I am the one you should be thinking about.  I'm writing this very personal and confessional article because I think you should know the truth - what it is like - how people, even relatives, friends, and loved ones can and do abandon or ignore those who are in their greatest need of help.  No - Nick and Emily didn't tell me that so-and-so hasn't visited me.  Nothing like that.  But I know from experience without them telling me. That's why I encourage anyone reading this.  If you have time and you know the good he has done over the years in this city.  Pay him a visit.  I'm sure he would love it.  There is a very important reason... It's about what Nick is all about.  What activists are all about.  Or should be. Nick will agree.


Nick has spent forty years of his life trying to bring this very fact to the attention of the general public -and politicians - We should be paying more attention to those in greatest need in our culture. In the sixties Robert Kennedy coined the old saying…"You can measure 'civilization' by how it treats the less fortunate ones in society." Nick has lived that and breathed that...  It's in writing.  Just Google his name and you'll be able to read for hours his activism and writing for the 'poor'. He ran for mayor six times.  Not because he thought he could win.  But because he was using everything he knew as an experienced activist to do.  Using a 'vehicle'.  Using the media and the process of democracy to bring 'attention' any way he could - to those in greatest need in our society. I emphasize this for good reason.  We all have been in need at some point.  Nick's life has been dedicated to making us pay attention to others in need.  Now it's time to repay his efforts…I added my youth and my activism to show that I was in need and wished to use that 'experience' to help others.  Nick may have been the spark that reminded me I had always wanted to be a journalist and an activist.  At the risk of sounding redundant I just want to mention one last thing, something I've mentioned before.


One of the first times I heard of the name Nick Ternette he was photographed in the Winnipeg Free Press. Standing in front of a bank on portage - daring the police to arrest him. He was protesting the city's repressive by-law that determined where and when a citizen could freely communicate to a fellow citizen his or her desire to be given change.  Standing up for the rights of the less fortunate citizens.  The ones we so willingly refuse to see or understand.  Or respect.  …Our fellow citizens.  The less fortunate ones

Nick's experience in Health Science Centre

Nick has been now eight weeks in HSC.  "In some ways things have been good, in some ways bad, " said Nick...  "The nursing is excellent.  I'm slowly healing and the amputation is healing up well.  I'm doing lots of physiotherapy, throwing the medicine ball, getting in and out of the wheel chair myself well. I'm dong all I need to to go home.  But I still have some viruses," he added.


"My red and white blood cell count is still below 90 though.  I might have to have a bone marrow transplant"


Nick said that the food is awful, not surprising.  Personally, when I had to go to the HSC for a few weeks in 2006 shortly after my near death experience with double pneumonia I had thought the food wasn't bad.  But then, I'm a bachelor - he's used to home cooking!


Nick's life has been routine as far as hospital life goes.  Up at 6 A.M.  Not a problem for Nick having been an early riser all his life.  He gets a face wash and good cleaning and even some powder, for the possible rashes I suppose.  8 A.M.  the doctor often comes to see him.  The wounds from the amputation are not entirely healed yet and hopefully the bacterial infections will heal well.  He's looking forward to going over to the rehab building.  As I did mention in the beginning he would like more visitors.  That is what patients usually do love.  It make s all the difference in the world - I know from experience.  Morale is very important to the healing - or should I say battling process.  His immune system is still very low and the risk of any added infection could be serious.


Nick is writing an autobiography and his editor comes about twice a week.  Lots of people have come to visit Nick but more are always more than welcome.  Nick and Emily have been given a generous offer from the Alumni Association of University of Winnipeg for a wheelchair accessible suite at McFeetor Hall a brand new residence right across from waves of Glory Church on Furby St up the street from U of W. for students, professors and families.  "It meets our needs very well," Nick said, " We are both wheelchair users so It would be prefect.

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