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Meeting the St Nick of Winnipeg

 Street Sheet (Canada) 14 May 2019

(Originally published: 04/2010) Rodney Graham first met Nick Ternette about 15 years ago while going door-to-door in an anti-flyer campaign. Turns out, Nick was an activist, just like Rodney. He has campaigned for an against countless causes, from aiming to protect the area’s squeegee kids to the war in Vietnam. Nick has dedicated his life to helping others and isn’t afraid to go it alone. Here, Rodney shares the story of Winnipeg’s own St. Nick.  - By Rodney Graham

Street Sheet

Courtesy of Street Sheet

I met Nick Ternette about 15 years ago. Soon after we became good friends.

I first met Nick Ternette about 15 years ago. It must have been around 1994 or 1995. I was going door to door doing my first no flyer campaign. He was amiable for sure - but he told me he actually delivered flyers himself…

"I agree with you in principle of course," He had said…

He told me he was associated with the Green Party so I talked to him for just a few minutes.

When I walked away from his door I thought to myself, '...He sure is one of the more interesting of the many eclectic people in the Wolseley neighbourhood.' He seemed a friendly and interesting individual. I was to meet with him more in the near future and we became good friends within a year. Our interests - our passions - were mainly concerned with social activism however, as we were to find out over the course of the next couple of years after meeting that day..

It was because of the squeegee kids - I might as well blame them - they were blamed for everything else - and of course, St Nick - that I started full time activism.

Our passions directed by childhood and youth

I had formerly worked in the forest/re-forest industry and for forest fire fighting contractors and had travelled back and forth between the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, especially during the summer forest fire season. It was my life for many years.

That's why I decided to get an apartment in Winnipeg. It was in the middle of my 'territory' as it were. Working in the forests was in my blood I guess - my mother's father was a forest ranger.

It was a time when there were no roads. He travelled by horse. He gave out permits to cut trees, clear land, and to plant crops too. My aunt Alice in Saskatchewan told me he had to navigate sometimes by the stars at night and spend many days alone in the wildness of the north. A lot harder than driving on blacktop with cruise control or flying 30,000 feet above the cold prairies in a sleek jet.

My grandfather's ancestors on my dad's side were from rural Ireland - farmers. My father apparently also was a man of the earth, a nature lover. He ran his own fishing business in Sturgeon Landing. So it was no wonder that I had this passion for the forests.

Even though I didn't know my dad until the later years of his life - I had a love of the outdoors - It was because of our passions in life I believe that Nick and I became friends over the years and began working together. Our passions are in part directed by what happens in our youth. But it was because of the estrangement of me and my family and my troubled youth that I had a passion for social activism. I was abandoned at the age of 12. I always tell young people it is always good to reconcile with your parents and family if and when it is possible, but I will leave the details of that out. Needless to say I've written much about homeless youth and related social issues. Nick's youth was also a rocky one.


Nick was born in Berlin, Germany, before the end of the Second World War. Nick had to hide with his mother numerous times during the frequent air raids on the city. One day his mother heard the air raid siren. They didn't have time to go to a bomb shelter so she ran down to a corner of the basement. Shortly after entering the basement a bomb demolished most of the house and the roof caved in the basement, too. If they had gone to the other side of the basement they'd have died. It had totally collapsed. His dad was in the Wehrmacht and went to the Eastern Front. One day after the war a strange man walked into their house. Nick's mother was not home, just the nanny.

"'Hello,' He said to me.'I'm your father.'

"I was flabbergasted," Nick said.

Nick's mother was a religious woman and Nick was an altar boy from the age of four in the Russian Orthodox Church in Berlin As the congregation was composed of nothing more than older women (the Second World War killed off many of their husbands and brothers), they prayed that Nick would grow to become their priest. So you see, this is where the 'St Nick' comes in. His mom named him after St Nicholas. The fact is - in many ways he has been like old St Nick. Maybe they're prayers were answered.

Of course he saw all that was happening around him during the Great War in Europe. It made a great impression on him.

"I played among the ruins of the bombed out buildings in my neighbourhood," Nick said. "I was always the Indian - the other boys were the cowboys," He added. Nick knew what it was to be the underdog. He was Russian really - not German. His ancestors came from Russia. His playmates in Berlin had chastised him for being Russian. When he came to Winnipeg in his youth he was persecuted for being a dirty German 'kraut' as they would say to him continually.

"I developed very early an empathy for the underdog," Nick explained to me.

Nick's dad came over to Canada in 1954. He worked on the CN rail tracks north of Winnipeg. just like my own dad had done in his younger years. I mentioned to Nick that it's possible my dad could have worked with his dad - or even knew him, because although his dad would have been a bit older. My dad did work on the rails when very young shortly after the war - which my dad was also in - on the other side. Maybe that's why I love the rails. Not working on them, just riding them.

Nick and his mom came in 1955. He attended Laura Secord and Daniel Macintyre School in the West End. At Laura Secord, Nick suffered a great amount of racism at school. They called him 'kraut and 'Nazi' all the time. He went on to work with disadvantaged natives and was the coach of a teenage football team.

Too many so-called activists are willing to back up 'campaigns' and 'causes' in a large group or if it is 'acceptable' or 'politically expedient' to do so. But Nick is willing to stand alone or with a small group - like us at Street Sheet. I remember also seeing his picture in the paper, even before our paper started. He was standing alone in front of a bank in an act of public protest, civil disobedience, to protest the oppressive anti-panhandling by-law. Daring the police to arrest.

Nick, an activist for 40 years

"Yes, of course, there is oppression as there has been always but it's not the same as before, it's more subtle, but it is there." Nick said. "People know that we are not all 'equal' as we should be. But no one is willing to do anything about it!" He continued, "Until we all agree that something should be done, injustice will just continue!"

One of Nick's earliest activities in Winnipeg was leading one of the first protest marches against the war in Vietnam. He has had the role of 'grand marshal' for many years here. He was arrested at least three times and beat the charges each time. He said that one of his more interesting 'battles' was 'testing' the new freedom of information laws that were enacted in Canada. The Calgary Herald wanted to 'test' the new laws out and asked Nick to ask the Government for files they had on him. It took ten years. "I had to go through the courts - the government tried to stop me as much as they could. By 1992 I got many of the files they had on me. There is still about 200 pages of pages still classified that they refused to relinquish. They claim that it might be harmful to Canada's safety if they were given out. The Globe and Mail did a story that was on the front page in 1987.

Having been a critic of politicians and the political process for many years Nick says that his favourite politicians were Joe Zuken, the local city councillor, and Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau, because of his personality and aggressive and progressive manner, and Zuken because of his brilliant socialist politics at city hall.

The Squeegee Kids

I talked with Nick briefly about the unfortunate issue of the group of individuals who were criminalized even though a task force was formed to find a 'solution' for the squeegee kids. Or more precisely for the merchants, as Nick agreed with me that it was the business community that was almost solely 'against' them from the start. For the majority of citizens squeegee kids were definitely not a 'problem' at all.

"Interestingly," Nick said, "it was a tie vote at city hall in regards to passing the law against them. The 'task force' that was formed to find a solution to the kids came up with an interesting 'solution' - to licence them. And leave them in peace. The Social Planning Council - not a part of the government - did a good job of researching the issues facing youth on the street in general and even some other cities took note of some of the findings.' But city hall implemented - against all advice - the law against the squeegee kids anyway. But apparently the powers that be would have most likely got it passed anyway - even if there had been any real concern and protest against it. The fact that similar laws have been passed successfully all across Canada show that.

"But the first repressive law against the squeegee kids was implemented in the city of Winnipeg - history will record that.

"It's rather ironic that the powers that be are planning a big expensive tribute to human rights - a museum here in Winnipeg Manitoba Canada. In my opinion."

Nick campaigned for many things and against many things. The anti-panhandling by-law that was initiated in 1995 in Winnipeg among other causes. He may have not been always successful at fighting injustice and oppression, but he has tried. His fight against it may not have been always successful but he did bring attention to the injustice of it all. His greatest success has been in inspiring others. He has inspired me. It's a good thing perhaps that he lives as an honorary tenant at the University of Winnipeg. Maybe he will inspire some there. Perhaps not. Because he is an independent thinker. A leader. A true protestor. Not a follower. In a world where the status quo measures success by accomplishments, position, wealth, Nick stands still as a lighthouse of inspiration to those of us who view success by what's right and what's wrong - and his mother might agree - we should view success by the impact that we make for eternity.

What we do in life echoes in eternity.

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