It could have been any four Calgary men on the bus headed downtown. Except that three of the four were among the most dangerous skinheads in Canada. And that was a very unfortunate thing for the Asian teens who were now the centre of their attention.
Fuelled by alcohol, Rob, Tyler and Kevin, leaders of Western European Bloodline, a neo-Nazi group, began with taunts about the Asian kids’ language and race. That increased to more aggressive behaviour, until the skinheads were standing over the cowering group of terrified high schoolers, debating how far to take it.
As the bus pulled to a stop downtown, Rob called off his cohorts, as he was in violation of his probation. Being out at night and drinking would be a direct trip to jail if caught.
They all laughed and walked into the night, getting off on the shot of adrenalin.
That left the fourth man in the group to face up to what had just occurred.
“Seeing the fear, confusion and pain in the eyes of everyone on the bus was too much to bear. When those eyes swung towards me, I wanted to apologize and explain my involvement to the victims on that southbound bus,” says Brett Gundlock, a photojournalist who was with the skinheads that day and documented the movement for three years.
That was two years ago. Currently Tyler Sturrup and Rob Reitmeier are behind bars, awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder related to the beating death of Mark Mariani in an alley in October 2010, eight months after the bus incident.
“These are the true believers, the warriors of a race war they believe is being waged against whites worldwide. Based on ideologies from a dark time in the history of humanity, skinheads feel they are on a path of righteousness. Penalized by society, they will only answer to God,” explains Gundlock.
Gundlock first approached a group of neo-Nazi skinheads in 2008 following their first White Pride March through downtown Calgary. He proposed doing a long-term photo documentary project examining their lives and the role they play in society.
Neo-Nazis had been quite active in other parts of Canada and were starting to take a hold in the West. Gundlock was interested in learning why people were attracted to the movement and why they believe what they do.
“At first it was just curiosity. The fact that they existed here at all surprised me. I started to develop a little more insightful thoughts later on when I spent a lot of time learning about them and understanding their perspectives, where they were at in their lives and what brought them there.”
Gundlock was also curious how such a violence-laden group manages to exist in Canada at all.
“There is not a Nazi epidemic sweeping across Canada. But the fact that these ideologies exist is an interesting perspective on the current acceptance in our seemingly respectful country.”
The White Pride March was Calgary’s first major introduction to the Aryan Guard, which quickly became the most notorious neo-Nazi group in Canada, led by Kyle Robert McKee.
Coming to Calgary from Waterloo, McKee joined forces with other Nazi sympathizers to create the Aryan Guard. The group followed the 14 words which has become the adopted mantra of the international White Power movement: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White Children.”
Traditionally Canadian skinheads have kept their actions quiet, keeping out the public eye as much as possible. The Aryan Guard took the opposite approach with their actions, from handing out anti-immigration flyers and White Pride CDs to recruit youth to conducting public marches. McKee and his comrades quickly gained national attention from the media, public and racists alike.
Aryan Guard has since been replaced by two white supremacist groups — Western European Bloodline and Blood and Honour, fronted by McKee. He is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of assault in connection with an Edmonton incident involving two East Indian men. Edmonton police believe it was a racially motivated attack, hours after a white pride march in that city.
Police stats show 61 hate crimes reported in Calgary in 2010, the latest figures available, with the majority being assaults or property damage. That ranked the city sixth highest for reported hate crimes in major cities, according to Statistics Canada. Like much of the country, that’s a decrease from the 2006 numbers. But it’s believed only 10 per cent of hate crimes are ever reported, according to the Alberta Hate Crimes Committee.
Stephen Camp, president of the committee and a former officer with the Edmonton Police hate crimes unit, says
most hate crimes are not committed by organized groups.
“The stats have shown consistently over the decades if you’re going to have a hate crime, it’s going to be some Joe redneck in a bar.”
StatsCanada notes that cities with dedicated police units, such as Calgary’s diversity resources section, can influence the numbers. More resources available for investigation, community awareness campaigns and victims assistance may encourage more people to come forward with complaints.
Calgary Police would not provide information about the groups, their numbers or their level of activity in the city.
It’s been relatively quiet in Calgary with the last publicized incident an anti-immigration flyer campaign in Forest Lawn in August 2011.
That contrasts with several high-profile incidents around the world, including a shooting rampage in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., on Aug. 5. A 40-year-old Army veteran with deep ties to the white supremacist movement killed six and wounded three before turning a gun himself. And in Germany in August, 1,000 police officers raided the homes of known neo-Nazis and confiscated weapons and computers.
Camp believes there may be dozens of small hate groups across the country with websites or small cliques of like-minded people but they come and go in cycles.
“I don’t think there are very many organized, active hate groups in Alberta right now. But when you see something like Blood and Honour come to fruition and they’re doing these marches, you think it’s something quite rampant that is going on, and it’s actually not.”
Aside from yearly marches and random acts of violence, the Calgary groups keep to themselves.
“They don’t do much. It’s more of a social club for youth. They mostly hang out and drink and party and the random drunken violence comes out of that. There’s no master plan,” Gundlock observed.
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Gundlock saw it first-hand and his photos document some of the casual violence that erupts even in their own homes. While he acknowledges the groups are small and isolated, their impact on individual citizens can be devastating.
“I wouldn’t say the threat to society is overblown. I don’t think there’s an epidemic or there will be a race war. But the violent tendencies are there and is something to acknowledge.”
Gundlock says one of the most threatening members of the group he followed was its leader, Kyle McKee. He was Gundlock’s conduit to the group, the one he had the strongest relationship with. The one he both liked and feared the most.
“He’s extremely charismatic, extremely committed. If he wasn’t a racist, he’d be a really great guy to hang out with. I wouldn’t hesitate to call him my friend.
“People love him. He’s quiet but he’s one of those people who commands respect. But he’s also extremely dangerous, impulsive, a very violent guy.”
Gundlock still remembers his anxious first moments with McKee’s skinhead group, He met them in a Bridgeland park — one nervous photographer talking to 10 intimidating skinheads on a park bench. He explained his intent and showed examples of previous work, and about a month later they invited him to McKee’s house in the southeast, their unofficial headquarters, for beers and more conversation.
But there was still a lot of mistrust on their part, which wasn’t helped by the fact Gundlock showed up driving a different car from the one he had at the meeting in the park. They were immediately suspicious and kept asking him about his car.
An hour into the evening, everyone was called out of the basement, leaving him alone with his fearful thoughts.
“A few minutes later, I could hear their boots on the wood stairs coming back. They showed me a folder with information related to me and the different licence plate numbers.”
He explained he had driven his brother’s car the first time because his was in the shop. And he apologized for the confusion. Which, judging by the tension in the room, he says came at the perfect time to avoid an escalation in the situation.
“This set the tone for the rest of our interactions, a mutual respect and well-defined lines, which were not to be crossed.”
Gundlock said the relationship grew gradually, almost awkwardly.
“At the start they were really nervous about letting me in and sharing their world. After a while, you build trust and eventually they ignore you and I became one of the guys.
“But it was always clear wherever we were at — I was ‘the reporter, the journalist’. I wasn’t there to change their lives, I wasn’t on a religious mission.” Gundlock believes the group accepted him primarily because they liked the attention.
“A lot of people won’t take the time to listen to their ideals — not that people should — and so when I did, I think they appreciated that….
“I was worried about shooting this project. It sort of validates their existence. But I think the photos don’t glamorize or glorify them.”
Through three years of photographing them — at home, with their children, planning events and in the community — Gundlock saw beyond the stereotypes. While their behaviour was confrontational and very aggressive, he recognized it was fuelled by ignorance and hatred. It was painful to watch.
“Once immersed in this subculture, the most challenging thing for me was defining my relationship with the Nazis. It was very difficult to call such a hateful person a friend, but after having relationships that spanned over three years, in which deep dark secrets were shared and new ones were created, it was impossible to not develop a bond of trust.
“Aside from the extremist views these individuals had, their lives are quite similar to anyone else in their demographic. Beer and girls were high on the list of priorities and macho challenges and drunken fights were not uncommon.”
The neo-Nazi Movement is mainly composed of late teens and young adults, often on the edge of society and from dysfunctional, desperate backgrounds.
“A lot of these people are quite young, angry and disenfranchised,” says Camp.
“You’ll see some similar demographics on gender, age and socio-economic status.”
Gundlock says interested individuals were always welcomed into the Calgary group and there was always beer on tap. Some of the older members loaned their extra Doc Martin boots and bomber jackets to potential skinheads not able to afford the gear.
One of the most interesting people he met while documenting the group was a teenager who came from Hamilton for the 2007 March. A quiet teenager wearing a backwards ball cap, a hoodie and a backpack, he said he wanted to become involved in the movement and take action.
“After only a few days the shaggy hair and skateboard attire was gone and he had a cleanly shaved head and a borrowed bomber jacket. Like some weird reality TV show, his appearance was changed from an average-looking teenager to a stereotypical skinhead. He was in the club.”
Gundlock said the next two years of the youth’s life were less romantic than he had imagined. He fell to the bottom of the group’s pecking order after he hid in a bus stop during a demonstration when the skinheads clashed with anti-racist protesters.
In 2009 a warrant was issued for his arrest, along with McKee, after a pipe bomb blew up outside the home of Sturrup, a rival skinhead who had previously been involved with the Aryan Guard.
The Ontario youth spent the next seven months in jail before being released after being found not guilty. (McKee was found guilty of possessing bomb-making materials).
“I lost contact with him following that. He was charged again months later in Ontario for assault with a weapon and since then has disappeared from the public eye, like many others before him.
“It’s all just a really sad story. It makes me angry they’re having this impact on people. But it seems unavoidable from the start for these people. It’s the path they went down. It’s sad to see it continue with younger kids coming into it.”
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