Twenty years ago today, Leo LaChance, 43 and member of the Big River First Nations was shot and killed at a River Street pawn shop by white supremacist Carney Milton Nerland.
Nerlad, through a plea bargain, was found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to four years, but served less than three before being placed in witness protection.
LaChance was a good-natured, funny, small-scale trapper with a drinking problem. On Jan. 28, 1991, he left a note for his family and hitchhiked to Prince Albert to sell a few pelts worth $5 for some spending money.
His usual fur trader had closed just an hour earlier, so he went to the pawn shop next door, owned by Nerland.
Nerland, a professed white supremacist, member of the Ku Klux Klan and leader of the Saskatchewan branch of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian Aryan Nation was inside with two others, having a few drinks.
The exact details of what followed in the store were never determined.
What did occur was the fatal shooting of LaChance. The wounded man tried walking towards Central Avenue, but collaped after about 50 yards.
A bystander saw him and ran to find a phone. He tried Nerland’s store. He was told there was no phone. The man ran to the A&W before calling police.
The first officer on the scene was Troy Cooper, then a constable, now the city’s deputy chief.
“I had been working on patrol on the time, been on the force since 1987, graduated from police college in 1989 and had only a couple years of experience,” said Cooper.
“I remember that I was at the office, close to the end of my shift, with my partner and we got a call that there was a man down, which was not uncommon of course, for a variety of reasons, in downtown Prince Albert.”
Ambulance workers arrived in about three minutes and Cooper and his partner arrived shortly afterwards.
“I can still recall as though it was yesterday, what he looked like laying there, what he was wearing and everything,” he said. “I asked him what had happened, I asked him where it had happened and I asked him in English and I asked him in Cree,” Cooper said.
“I asked him who did this to you and he said white guys.”
LaChance also said he thought the gun had gone off accidently. He would say it repeatedly.
For Cooper the whole incident was a shock. Because of LaChance’s large jacket, neither paramedics nor police realized he had been shot. It was only when his clothing was removed did they notice the blood.
“It was so rare. Gun violence in Prince Albert, especially 20 years ago, was very rare. There was violence certainly, but to have someone shot, it was in the middle of a week, in the middle of a busy area,” said Cooper.
“First of all it was unbelievable. I had seen him lying there. He was not bleeding, there had not been a shot recorded or reported to us so we weren’t anticipating that when we got there so to find he had been shot was very surprising.”
LaChance was raced to the hospital where Cooper tried to get statements out of him while he was being treated. He was able to get just the basics before doctors decided LaChance would need to go to Saskatoon for emergency surgery.
Early Jan. 29, he died from the massive damage caused to his internal organs from being shot with an assault rifle.
Connie Sampson was a reporter at the Prince Albert Daily Herald. During her morning rounds of calls, a contact told her she might want to take a walk on River Street.
“I found the police cars, the shop and I realized something had happened and I knew of Nerland and I saw the bullet hole in the door,” said Sampson.
“There were lots of fights and assault with weapons and that sort of thing, but I had never come across an attack with a gun. It was different in that way and it was also different because it was a neo-Nazi that did it.”
Police spoke with Nerland and the other men in the shop. They decided there was enough information to lay a charge for LaChance’s death.
However, because LaChance had said he thought the shooting was an accident and because of the statements from the men, police and prosecutors decided they could only charge Nerland with manslaughter.
Nerland appeared in court twice, was denied bail and eventually pleading guilty to the charge.
Inquiry makes suggestions
The community wasn’t satisfied with the charge or the sentence. The Prince Albert Indian Metis Friendship Centre, the Prince Albert Tribal Council (now Grand Council) and the FSIN, headed by then-chief Roland Crowe, all pushed for an inquiry.
The province eventually decided to commission one, selecting Judge Ted Hughes to head it.
“It became apparent to us during the hearings that we are still a long way from being a tolerant society,” said the inquiry’s final report.
“Living as we do in widely separated areas of our country, we see this as a Canadian problem — not just a local one. In our view, the goal of achieving a society of tolerance, understanding and cross-cultural respect and sensitivity will not be reached until minority cultures are recognized, accepted and appreciated by the majority culture in this country. We believe majority culture does not understand the extent of the impact of racism on those who are its victims.”
The inquiry also put forward the recommendation that at least one Cree-speaking officer be on duty at all times at the Prince Albert Police Service and that the province improve training for officers and prosecutors to deal with racism.
To Present Day
The shooting of LaChance highlighted the undertone of racism present in the community and brought the need for change and understanding to the forefront. But has that happened?
Sampson ended up turning the sequence of events in an award-winning book Buried In Silence. Not only did it deal with the straight facts of the incident, it dealt with the history of the First Nation communities in the region going back several generations.
She said the intent was to bring more information to the table and allow both the white and aboriginal communities to understand their mutual history.
“I don’t think a lot of people know very much about the reserves around here,” said Sampson.
“You see Indians downtown, you see whites downtown, you don’t know much about them. If you knew some of the background of them it would make a big difference.”
When it comes to the events and how they affected the community, Sampson said she wasn’t sure much had changed since then.
“I think it’s had some effect, but I don’t think it’s had a massive effect,” she said. “I think over time, as more and more native people get university education and finish high school or get diplomas and work in the community that’s what really makes the difference.
"The main thing I think is that it changed the focus of both communities both the First Nations and the city that there was a problem and they couldn’t ignore it anymore. I think people realize now that we have to coexcist, we can’t ignore this.”
For Deputy Cooper the event was a galvanizing force for the police service. Not because the service at the time was a place for racism, but because it made the conversation public for the entire country.
“When this occurred there was that racial tension felt every day. But we don’t have that now,” Cooper said.
“I’m not going to say it can’t happen again, but if we’re careful if we can recognize culture, if we’re diligent in making sure that we reflect the community that’s how we protect ourselves against it.”
Cooper said initiatives such as the police’s mentorship and aboriginal recruitment committee have been successful and resulted in a more representative service.
“We present the community we police. We have the same percentage in our service of aboriginal and Metis as in the community,” he said.
“It’s not 'us' policing 'them' — we’re an extension of the community. There’s no opportunity as there had been in the 50's and 60's for us to feel different from the people we’re policing and that’s how you stop racism.
“If you don’t have credibility with the people you are policing, you can’t be that effective.”
For Roland Crowe, now a senator with the FSIN, it was a tragic event.
He said while it forced the community to face the issues of racism and tolerance, he wished the issues could be addressed without a horrible crime.
“We have to understand each other prior to terrible events happening,” said Crowe.
“There’s been a lot of good work done, I think we’ve made some strides forward but at the same time, as far as a satisfactory resolve, I don’t think we’re there yet.
“There’s many things we talk about but as we well know you can’t legislate good attitudes and it’s difficult to enforce attitudes. But I think the learning process that is necessary for respect between Indian and European people has some strides to go yet.”
Nerland was released from prison two-thirds into his sentence and was put into witness protection because not only was he an avid participant and leader of white supremacist groups, but he was allegedly an informant for the RCMP.
His whereabouts are currently unknown.
In 2001, the Prince Albert Provincial Court was opened very near to the spot where LaChance was shot.
During the ceremony, there was a ceremony and unveiling of a statue of LaChance, by artist Lloyd Pinay, with a message to the community.
“The sculpture serves to remind those who enter here to respect and honour all cultures – to listen, to hear, to treat all people with respect and dignity.”
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