Gadfly, anarchist, troublemaker. These are some of the words I heard used to describe Nick Ternette when I moved to Winnipeg in the nineties. Somehow none of it seemed to fit the first time I encountered him one bright spring morning delivering newspapers on a Wolseley street. In retrospect I had stumbled into Winnipeg’s most humble and colourful intellectual.
Nick, who passed away March 3rd, was hard to peg down. He was Winnipeg’s most famous community activist, a passionate crusader for the downtrodden, and an eclectic thinker who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind in spite of conventional political prejudices.
From the start, we had friendly arguments about simplistically pigeon-holing policies as being left or right wing. He called himself a leftie, adamantly but respectfully describing the Frontier Centre as a “new right” think tank, whatever that meant.
Early on, he scolded some colleagues for allowing the “right” to appropriate a good left wing idea after Frontier commented favourably on the concept of the Guaranteed Annual Income, which would end all income related social programs in exchange for an annual flat payment from government.
Things moved on and he said our two solitudes would benefit by exchanging ideas. He became a fixture at the annual Frontier Christmas party while I was honored to find myself on his birthday party guest list.
Frontier purposefully chooses to operate outside the traditional left vs. right paradigm, to avoid bogging down in the tiresome, predictable dialogue we’ve become used to in Winnipeg and Manitoba politics. Nick eventually got that. We agreed that government could actually achieve good things with smarter public policy. Much common ground was to be found if we left the old labels behind.
Nick was not your garden variety, one size fits all, big government leftie typically found comfortably ensconced in some well-connected public sector job. He was from the segment of the “left” that believe that power should flow from the bottom up – not from the top down. That he was not a big central planner was obvious in a 2009 lecture he gave to the Frontier Centre (/media.php/1188) where he deftly demolished the 1971 Winnipeg Unicity amalgamation, mapping out how it empowered the suburbs and the bureaucrats at the expense of a declining downtown.
He also understood that the goal of city services was to serve the citizens first. In 1999, much to the chagrin of CUPE, he endorsed the so-called Indianapolis model of service delivery where city employees were given the freedom to operate as business units in competition with private vendors. Why not? It was a bottom up model that saved millions that were diverted into infrastructure improvements while generating gain sharing bonuses for workers.
Nick believed that government should work for the many, not for the few. At city hall, where he was a constant fixture at public hearings, he frequently criticized the lack of transparency in civic institutions. He was well aware of Winnipeg’s “inside baseball” problem between elected officials and property developers. That issue fit one of his more colourful social justice narratives – that the little people get screwed when policy is perverted into "socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor.”
The same theme emerged after he met with another Frontier guest speaker – Russell Means, the controversial former leader of the radical American Indian Movement. Nick wrote how he agreed with Means’ view that corporate capitalism and corporate socialism are the same – both being dangerous because they eliminate competition. Interestingly, he also agreed with Means that “we need to get rid of the Department of Indian Affairs because it perpetuates dependency rather than independence.”
In 2006 he interviewed the iconic Christopher Hitchens who was speaking to a Frontier gala dinner about the busybody state. Nick’s resulting commentary (where he fascinatingly mentions that he had once met Raya Dunayevskaya, Leon Trotsky’s secretary in Mexico) delved into the conflict between collective and individual responsibility. The socialist believes more in collective responsibility, he wrote, while the libertarian believes more in individual responsibility and he, like Hitchens, wanted to intertwine the two. He was one with Hitchens’ distaste for the busybody state writing – “I have long argued that “small is beautiful” and less government is better – especially in social issues like prostitution and freedom of speech.”
Nick Ternette: citizen, libertarian socialist, friend. You will be missed.