THE KILLING OF LEO LACHANCE
Written by Ron Bourgeault in Canadian Dimension, Mar/Apr94, Vol. 28 Issue 2, p21
On a cold January 1991 night in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Leo LaChance, a Cree from Whitefish reserve near Big River, was shot and killed by Carney Milton Nerland. Nerland, a self-confessed fascist, was also the Saskatchewan leader of the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations. After a quick investigation Nerland was charged with manslaughter and in May 1991 was sentenced to a short four-year prison term with eligibility for statutory release after serving two-thirds of the time. On December 15, 1993 Nerland was released from Stony Mountain penitentiary and placed under a witness-protection program as an informant to the RCMP.
After Nerland was sentenced, there was an outpouring of public concern, particularly from the Aboriginal community, over how the affair was handled.
Many questions were asked. Why, after killing an Indian, was an avowed political racist charged with manslaughter instead of murder and sentenced to a short prison term? Why was there no trial and no opportunity for a court to publicly examine the crime and Nerland's political activities? Was there a cover-up by the justice system and where did the responsibility lie? Who was in the gun shop with Nerland when LaChance was shot? Was it Nerland who fired the fatal shot?
Over the course of a year, the suspicion that Nerland had received preferential treatment from the justice system mounted. The public was concerned about whether political racism existed and if the police, corrections and other justice officials in Prince Albert were involved in such organized activities.
At the time, the Conservative government resisted all public pressure for an investigation. The newly-elected NDP government (October 1991) ultimately capitulated to public pressure and established a commission of inquiry in April 1992, chaired by Judge E.N. Hughes.
Its official purpose was to inquire into and report on all relevant aspects of the justice system and organized racism as they related to the killing of LaChance and conviction of Nerland. But it also had an unofficial purpose; to dispel the growing public distrust and skepticism of the justice system.
The shooting and sentencing
Sometime after 6:00 p.m. on January 28, 1991, Leo LaChance entered the Prince Albert Northern Pawn and Gun Shop. In the shop were Carney Nerland, Gar Brown-bridge (an employee of the Saskatchewan Young Offenders Program), and Russell Yungwirth (a guard at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre). A fourth person, Roy McKnight (an employee of the Department of Natural Resources) had been in the shop but left a few minutes before LaChance entered. McKnight was previously a paratrooper with the Canadian Airborne Regiment, the same regiment that is now in Somalia and reported to have 24 white supremacists in it. While LaChance was in the shop, Nerland shot into the floor twice. Then, a few moments later, as he was leaving, LaChance was shot.
On January 30 the RCMP's Criminal Intelligence Division (CID) in Regina telephoned the Prince Albert police to tell them they had information that Nerland would flee Canada. That same day the Crown Prosecutor's office, in consultation with the Prince Albert police, decided manslaughter was the charge to proceed with. Later that day Nerland was arrested by the RCMP near Provost, Alberta, the site of a September 1990 Aryan Fest in which he participated. There are still Aryan members in Provost.
The decision to charge Nerland with manslaughter and not murder was made after only a day and a half investigation. The investigation relied heavily on the sworn statements of Nerland and his friends Brownbridge and Yungwirth who stated the shooting was an accident: Nerland did not know the rifle was loaded when, while putting it away, he pulled the trigger, shooting LaChance who was standing outside the door. It was concluded there was not enough evidence to show intent to kill.
On February 1 the CID met with the Prince Albert police and crown prosecutor where information on Nerland's political activities and the name of a police informant directly related to the case was disclosed. At this point, the police informant protection rule came to dominate both the case and the commission of inquiry into the killing. It was later revealed to the CBC during the inquiry that the informant was Carney Nerland.
In February Nerland made a request to be released on bail. This was denied as the judge felt he might receive a more serious charge. It was also still suspected that Nerland would go underground and flee to the United States. There was no further investigation and Nerland pleaded guilty, thereby denying a trial and the opportunity of a court to cross-examine his friends about the crime and delve into his organized political activities.
At Nerland's sentencing, the crown prosecutor took a lenient position. He agreed with the defence that the shooting was an accident and that a four-year term for manslaughter would be appropriate. Nerland's racial political ideology was dismissed as irrelevant to the shooting as well, despite Nerland's statement to a police officer "if I am convicted of killing that Indian, they should give me a medal and you should pin it on me." The sentencing judge stated that if there had been evidence linking Nerland's political views to the shooting, it would have justified a longer sentence. Then, strangely, the judge sentenced Nerland to the provincial Prince Albert Correctional Centre where he would have been in the company of his friends. He was later sentenced to the federal penitentiary at Stony Mountain in Manitoba.
The Inquiry and report
The primary focus of the inquiry was on the judicial process: how it was carried out and whether there were any irregularities. At no time was there an examination of systemic and institutionalized racism and its relationship to the justice system and the LaChance case. Nor was there any attempt to investigate and bring forth testimony on organized political racism.
In the hearings the Prince Albert police, crown prosecutor's office, and Justice Department officials said little beyond that they had followed the required procedures in the investigation and were restricted by the evidence in charging Nerland. Their testimonies read like individuals protecting their self-interest. At no time did they indicate that there were contradictions surrounding the shooting that would warrant further in-depth investigation and a more serious charge. Nerland's political affiliations were not seen as a contributing factor and therefore were not worthy of investigation.
The testimonies of the main actors in the gun shop varied little, giving the impression that they had rehearsed their stories to protect themselves and Nerland. Protected by the informant rule, Nerland's testimony offered little information. He was exempt from answering any questions on organized political racism, his relationship with the RCMP during the time of the investigation and charging, and his role as an informant.
There are many questions about the shooting that remain unanswered. Concerning the actual shooting, Nerland's testimony was consistent with that of his friends in the shop: after firing two test shots into the floor the rifle breech remained open. While putting the rifle away Nerland pulled the trigger to close the breech without knowing there was a third bullet in the barrel. The rifle was pointed at the door and the bullet passed through the door frame striking LaChance. Nerland claims he did not know that LaChance was standing outside the shop.
There is no confusion with this type of weapon; a Yugoslavian M-56 gas operated assault rifle. When the last shot has been fired the breech remains open and there is no bullet in either the magazine or barrel. Conversely, if the breech is closed, the rifle is loaded and ready to be fired again. Besides, as a member of the Aryan Nations, Nerland received extensive arms training including assault rifles. He would know the difference between an open and closed breech.
Other questions can be raised about the shooting. For instance, in his first statement to police Nerland declared that one of the other men in the shop did the shooting. At the inquiry there was testimony that as LaChance lay dying on the street he stated that, "it was the guy with the beard who shot me." Nerland did not have a beard at the time, but Yungwirth and McKnight did. These statements raise the possibility that it could have been somebody other than Nerland who fired the fatal shot. It is also possible then that LaChance was still inside the shop when he was shot.
Since Nerland was known as a white supremacist, was a decision made that night for him to be the fall guy to protect a clandestine organization? There was a witness prepared to testify that Nerland had engaged in political organizing from his shop. On different occasions he was introduced by Nerland to various people in the shop, including two of the gun shop boys, where race politics were being discussed.
Why was Nerland in the shop at 3:00 a.m. - the scene of the crime which was supposed to have been sealed - going through papers that were then passed on to McKnight? Why was Nerland given permission the next day by the police to travel to Alberta? Were organization membership lists and weapons being removed from Prince Albert? It is no coincidence that Aryan Nations members run gun shops.
The RCMP connection
There are also questions about the role of the RCMP in the case and its use of the informant protection rule. In the US there have been instances where the FBI has intervened with informancy protection to protect KKK informants from criminal prosecution. In Canada the informant protection rule is supported by a witness protection program which arranges for informants to receive not only reduced charges and prison time, but also a new identity. Did this happen with Nerland? To what extent did the RCMP used this rule to interfere in the investigation and the laying of charges against Nerland?
One wonders why the RCMP has been so diligent in their protection of Nerland. In the past year they have reneged on their commitment to two other informants, both in Ontario; one involved in drug dealings and the other in a biker gang. Was it because Nerland is extremely valuable, particularly for what he knows about white supremacist organization in the province?
In their report the commissioners conclude there were no irregularities committed by any of the parties involved in the justice process. The police and prosecutors acted with integrity and good faith throughout. The charge of manslaughter was deemed proper since no evidence could be found to support a more serious charge of murder. The commissioners stated that there was no evidence to link organized racism to the shooting and that white supremacist organization is not a threat in Saskatchewan. As a result, a further inquiry into such groups was not necessary. They drew their conclusion from the testimony of the RCMP officers, the same ones who were handling Nerland.
The commissioners do, however, direct some criticism at both police and crown prosecutors, mainly for their lack of "diligence" in investigating the crime. The commissioners believe they were too willing to accept the shooting as a simple accident and that Nerland's racist political views did influence his reckless behaviour in handling the rifle. In their view, had racial motivation as an aggravating factor been presented at sentencing, Nerland might have received a longer sentence.
The report makes two recommendations as solutions to the crime: that there be a Cree-speaking officer on duty at all times and that police officers receive cross-cultural training. These are hardly solutions to prevent what happened in Prince Albert from occurring again. LaChance is dead today precisely because he was an Indian who happened to walk into a gun shop where organized racial politics were operating, and where questionable persons gathered.
The killing was not a simple accidental homicide. As soon as the trigger was pulled politics came into play. The politics have to do with an informant and the value of that informant to the RCMP. Those politics in turn were legalized, knowingly or unknowingly, with a quick investigation and charge of manslaughter against Nerland. Within a period of three days, from the shooting to when the RCMP informed the Prince Albert police of an informant, the die was cast and Nerland became untouchable. The inquiry became nothing more than a playing out of legalized bigotry in the public arena. If justice has been served with this inquiry, then it is only in the interests of the justice system.
Nerland's political world
Nerland is a political racist whose ideology goes beyond a basic belief in white supremacy. In 1984, at the age of 18, Nerland joined the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nations which allowed him to be a member of both the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and Aryan Nations (AN). Nerland has also declared himself to be a National Socialist, or fascist, and a member of the National Socialist Workers Party. His joint membership reflects the close relationship between organized racism and fascism. In September 1989, Nerland was appointed head of the Saskatchewan Aryan Nations by national leader and fellow National Socialist, Terry Long.
Nerland became involved in a complex and clandestine network of extreme racist groups, individual fascists, and fascist organizations that operate across Canada and extend into the United States and Europe. In the 1980s these elements joined together to fine tune their ideology and build and adapt a fascist movement to reflect current conditions in North America. Their political strategy has been to move away from the narrow ultra-racism of white supremacy groups, which they see as deeply rooted and sectarian, toward a broader social movement. This movement popularizes racism by advocating white rights and addresses current social and economic issues with a focus on disillusioned and dispossessed white working and middle class people.
Today, this network has extended into centre and right-wing political parties and popular organizations such as anti-abortion groups and free speech/civil rights organizations. In the United States we see leaders like Tom Metzger (ex-KKK) with the White Aryan Resistance movement in California operating electorally in the Democratic party and advocating the development of a working class social base, including the politicization of skinheads. David Duke (ex-KKK) formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People, while operating electorally within the Republican Party.
In Ontario Wolfgang Droege (ex-KKK) and the Heritage Front, in alliance with the Church of the Creator (COTC) are involved in the Reform party. The COTC calls for a Racial Holy War (RAHOWA) to accomplish their goal of white supremacy. The COTC has been successful in organizing political skinheads throughout the United States and Canada. Presently, the COTC is operating in Western Canada, particularly in parts of British Columbia, and, according to sources, on the prairies.
In Toronto the Heritage Front has been directing propaganda specifically at working class high schools in an attempt to increase its social base. The Front, together with the COTC, is supporting the racist rock band, RAHOWA, in developing a racist culture among youth throughout southern Ontario.
It appears the Front has been successful in developing itself as a fascist formation. It has fashioned an organization linking politically disciplined skinheads (equivalent to the Nazi Freikorps, or roving street gangs), and an ideologized youth (Nazi Hitler-Jugend) with a class of "suits and ties" who do the thinking, directing and financing. The Heritage Front is not to be taken lightly. Whether it continues to grow or self-destructs over its tactics of violence and racism remains to be seen.
In Saskatchewan, contrary to the conclusions of the Hughes Commission, organization is happening. Reports from the Aryan Nations headquarters in Idaho disclose that Saskatchewan was to remain off-limits only until the commission blows over. There are also indications that the COTC has been operating in some high schools and universities. David Duke was in Regina in September 1991, and Rudy Stanko, an official with the COTC, was stopped by Canadian immigration from entering Saskatchewan at North Portal. Stanko was found to have six passports, two made out to himself and four blank. During this time, posters appeared in Regina advertising paramilitary training with an organization called The Warriors Edge. It has not been determined why Duke and Stanko were there and whether they were connected to each other or to the training organization.
In the past Nerland has expressed many of the policies of the new fascist movement with emphasis on white rights and the socio-economic conditions of the alienated working class. Nerland was relatively high in the hierarchy of the KKK and AN, and on personal terms with many leaders of the fascist and racist right in North America, including David Duke. Who he is, however, remains ambiguous. His tight protection suggests he is an informant of some value, not necessarily for what he has revealed but what he continues to know about the reaches of the organization.
From what is known, Nerland claims he left these organizations sometime before he was made leader of the Saskatchewan AN. One source has said that at the time of the shooting, he had been an informant with the FBI for six years and with the RCMP for two years. This may mean that the FBI passed him on to the RCMP. How he became an informant is unknown; it could have been voluntary or involuntary. In the case of the latter there is the possibility that he was "squeezed" by the police over some illegal act.
The question of Nerland as an informant has two sides. As a "one-way" informant it would be difficult for him to survive so long given his position in the hierarchy and his young age. These organizations have their own rigid internal surveillance. On the other hand, he could have been operating as a double agent, which means he informed his people of being squeezed. As a double agent he would have played the role of an informant to the police, providing them with minor information, while continuing to operate on an underground level. Nerland denied being a double agent at the inquiry.
Nerland has recently provided some guarded information. He has referred to his time in the KKK and AN as a "rape of my soul and mind," suggesting a reaction to their sectarian racism. Concerning his activities in Prince Albert, Nerland has said, "My field of operations were specific," suggesting that he was there specifically to deal with some racist activity. And on his role as an informant, he said, "If I was for real, I could have organized a serious Klan in Saskatchewan," meaning there was, and probably still is, a social base for organizing. One does not know if he was preventing organization or actually organizing on an underground level for the police. These questions are open to investigation.
Although Nerland claims to have left the KKK and AN and to have rejected racism, he has not necessarily repudiated fascism. In the few statements he has made about why he left these organizations, he still expresses an affinity for National Socialism and the order it brings to society. He does not express any concept of democracy. His alignment with the new fascism, if at all, is unknown. Perhaps what we see in Nerland is a fascist who is struggling with how fascism can be adapted to a pluralist society without understanding the role of racism in liberal democracy. How fascism can ever come about without racism remains to be seen.
One wonders if the RCMP understands who they have on their bands. One thing is certain, death is a frightening reality for Nerland.
Ron Bourgeault, a member of the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism, followed the Hughes Commission.