There have been many tributes, cards, e-mails and visits that Harry has received since we all learned about his illness. One comment that I remember reading is that labelling Harry as an “activist” is limiting his potential as a human being. I beg to differ. To me, an activist encompasses the role of citizenship and ultimately, democracy. Saul Alinsky, the founder of community organizing, formed many of the principles that Harry stands by. It is a rare gift for someone to be able to go beyond his own personal world and dedicate himself to changing communities and the way in which we see our city. It is the ability to give back to your community what you have gotten from it. And Harry has done just that. He has lived in the West End for the past 25 years and has actively participated in making it a healthy community. His Ellice Street Café and Theatre sparked a renaissance of the business community in the West End.
In my humble opinion, Harry shares the same company with three other activists that I most admire, who have worked so hard to make Winnipeg a better place – Sister McNamara, the founder of Rossbrook House who also saved the Logan neighbourhood by stopping the construction of the Sherbrook/McGregor overpass; – John Rogers, the founder and Executive Director of the Main Street Project whose commitment to those surviving on Main Street is unparalleled. John was instrumental in ensuring that “Jack’s House”, a hostel for men in need, was built, and he helped change the legislation relating to vagrants; – and finally, Dr. Carl Ridd, who was the head of Theology at the University of Winnipeg. Later in his life, Carl became involved in peace issues as well as civil liberty issues in the community – the squeegee kids and panhandlers. He was also the co-founder of “Thin Ice”, a group who, in 1995, prevented a new hockey arena from being built for the Winnipeg Jets. Coincidentally, all three of these great activists died of cancer.
According to Saul Alinsky, in order to be a good organizer you have to have imagination – and Harry surely has that! The organizer is, by necessity, an outsider in dealing with the rivalries, fears, jealousies and suspicions within a community. His moral standing and behaviour must be impeccable, which Harry’s is, and he cannot identify himself with any one side or cause. An effective organizer must not make value judgements about a community’s values, traditions and attitudes. Harry suffers alongside the people in his community and, along with many living in the West End, he resents those who are destructive to that community. Harry shoots straight from the hip. He uses language that people understand.
Harry and I approach community development from two different ideological perspectives. I am a socialist and believe in collective accountability and responsibility of a neighbourhood. Harry, on the other hand, is a conservative who looks at neighbourhoods from the perspective of individual responsibility. What we share is a vision of what healthy neighbourhoods should look like, as well as respect for one another’s process in attaining that vision.
I had the privilege of debating Harry on the issue of legalization of prostitution. When asked by a CBC reporter who he would like to debate the issue with, Harry said “Nick Ternette”. And so we had a rousing debate on the issue both on CBC Radio and at a ‘Bear Pit’ session at the Press Club.
Harry is not to be ignored or silenced, either in his work or in his writings. He has the courage to speak because he seems to operate from a principle deep in his being that bears witness, always, to the good, the true and the beautiful which cannot be silenced.
Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster.