Everyone was looking for Noel Harder.
In January 2015, a series of police raids across Western Canada known as Project Forseti had netted hundreds of guns and more than $8-million worth of methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl. Most of the 20 arrested were members of the Hells Angels or Fallen Saints motorcycle clubs.
Harder had often been seen on social media wearing his Fallen Saints jacket, but he was the only senior club member not in custody. He had disappeared.
Was Harder a fugitive? Was he dead? Or was there another explanation?
I called every potential source — criminals and crime fighters — and they all said they had no idea. But someone obviously did.
A couple of weeks later, I was at my desk in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix newsroom when the phone rang.
“Hey, is this Jason?”
“It’s Noel Harder. I hear you’re looking for me.”
Harder didn’t tell me where he was, but he answered the one question on everyone’s minds.
“I was the informant. I was an agent.”
He said he had been working undercover for months, gathering evidence of drug deals, gun-running and connections to organized crime. I later learned police handlers spirited Harder and his family to Mexico the day before the raids.
His photos, video recordings and testimony were central to the convictions of nearly two dozen criminals.
But Harder’s life, and the lives of his wife and two kids, were never the same.
Harder was later ejected from the witness protection program despite a reported $2-million bounty placed on his head by organized criminals, was arrested for having a gun in his car, spent more than 700 days languishing in solitary confinement as he awaited trial, and was released two years ago “completely broken,” his wife of 20 years said.
Noel Patrick Harder died of health complications earlier this month, his wife said. He had just turned 43 years old.
In our many phone calls and meetings, Harder alternately spoke of his dream to live with his family on a tropical beach, and the fear he could be murdered at any moment.
“I’m just trying to get things sorted out for my family before that happens,” he said.
During his trips to testify at a downtown Saskatoon courthouse, he was always accompanied by a small army of well-armed uniformed officers.
But at the funeral for this villain/hero Friday, there was no police escort, no honour guard, no 21-gun salute. A man who may have done more than anyone else in the province to combat organized crime was quietly memorialized by a few family members at a downtown Saskatoon funeral home.
I met Noel Harder in the summer of 2010, five years before the Project Forseti raids. I was sent to do a short feature on the former drug dealer who’d started his own landscaping business.
We met for an early morning interview at a coffee shop. He told me about his traumatic childhood, which included stints in shelters to avoid a severely abusive stepfather.
One of Harder’s most vivid memories is the day his stepfather took four-year-old Noel and his dog, Muggins, out to the railway tracks near their home. For no apparent reason, the man shot the white cocker spaniel.
“He just left me there with my dead dog. My childhood was really f–ked,” he said.
His big brother Donnie died after swallowing a bag of cocaine that ruptured. Harder took over Donnie’s business and became one of the province’s top drug dealers before being caught and jailed.
During that first interview, Harder said he was now focused on being a good father.
“I want my kids to be happy. I want them to have the life I never had.”
I asked if I could bring a photographer to one of the sites he was landscaping. He gave me the address in Saskatoon’s City Park neighbourhood.
“What time should we meet you?” I asked.
“Come any time today or tomorrow. I don’t want you to think I’m just shoveling s–t for the publicity.”
We showed up late that afternoon to find two employees — a Ukrainian newcomer and a fellow ex-convict — shoveling in the front yard while Harder pushed a full wheelbarrow up a slight incline. All three were covered in dirt and sweat.
Out of curiosity, I drove past the spot twice the next day. Harder was still there, still pushing the wheelbarrow uphill.
A month later, we bumped into each other at a hardware store. He thanked me for the story and said we should write a book together some day. I laughed and uttered something non-committal like, “We’ll see.”
We didn’t talk again until he called from inside the Witness Protection Program. He wasn’t claiming to be a good person — he was, after all, pressured to work as an informant after being caught with a bag of guns in his car.
He seemed desperate to tell his story, but wasn’t expecting absolution.
“I just want my kids to know me as the guy who did something good.”
Two months later, Harder was called to testify at a triple-murder trial in the death of a drug dealer linked to the biker gangs.
I was also called to testify — not about the murder, but about the previous interviews I’d done with Harder.
The defence lawyers wanted to see my notes. They argued there could be relevant information to the murder. The StarPhoenix’s lawyer argued there was no evidence my notebook contained anything relevant, and that journalists’ notebooks should not be used for lawyers’ “fishing” expeditions.
For three days, I sat in the witness box answering general questions about biker gangs and other information that Harder had already allowed me to reveal publicly. I did not discuss the contents of the notebook.
In the end, the judge ordered me to turn over my notes. I told him, “I respectfully decline.” He had me handcuffed and taken into custody for contempt of court.
My bag containing my notebook was seized, although our lawyer successfully argued that the notebook should at least be sealed until another hearing could take place.
A criminal lawyer was brought in to represent me. He told me the judge was furious, and could sentence me to prison for contempt.
I thought about a short call I got from Harder just days earlier. He said he’d heard about the demand for my notebook.
He said that if I was facing prison time — or if he was dead — I could hand it over to them.
“I know what it’s like in there. I don’t want that for you,” he told me.
In the end, there was no decision to make. The defence eventually backed down. The judge refused to give back the notebook, but we successfully applied to have it incinerated.
The Forseti cases took several years to conclude. Prosecutors and police secured convictions against nearly two dozen people.
Throughout it, Harder was a polarizing figure in legal circles.
One lawyer who defended several Hells Angels said officials “made a deal with the devil” while another called him a narcissist and a sociopath. A judge called Harder a “master manipulator.”
But in texts Harder shared with me, a police officer called him his “buddy” and said he “did a great thing for Saskatoon.”
A Crown prosecutor texted Harder to say, “I haven’t told police anything, except when I thought it would help you.… Let me know if you need me.”
Another officer said informants often come with a “boatload” of issues, but that Harder gave them an unprecedented look inside the criminal underworld, took good notes and was well-prepared for court.
Organized crime expert Yves Lavigne said society should be grateful to Harder, despite his flaws.
“Without this informant, or this agent, as he became, they would not have done anything in Saskatchewan,” he said.
In 2018, shortly after the Forseti cases concluded, I got a call at my desk in the newsroom of CBC Saskatoon. It was Harder again. He was not on a beach in Mexico. He was in Canada and said he’d been kicked out the Witness Protection Program.
Officials said he violated the agreement by using drugs and not calling his handlers when required. Harder admitted to this, but said the real reason was that he was no longer useful and was being “cut loose.”
He again wanted to tell his story — not about the criminal underworld, but about the flaws in the justice system. He hoped that shining a light on his situation would prevent officials from also ejecting his wife and kids from the program.
Through Harder and other sources, I learned a $2-million bounty had been placed on Harder’s head. We arranged to meet in a secret location, with only a handful of my colleagues aware of the details.
He shared transcripts of the witness protection negotiations with justice officials. They promised to pay him $500,000 and to find good schools and medical care for the kids.
“They’re going to take care of your needs and your safety when this is done,” read the transcript. “No one’s going to leave you high and dry.”
His wife and kids were shuttled to another location. He said that was the hardest moment of his life, knowing this could be the final goodbye.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I love you,” Harder recalled telling his crying kids. “Be strong for Mom. I’m gonna fix this.”
Later that year, Harder returned to Saskatoon. He admitted it was the wrong move, but without a job, he wanted to retrieve his remaining business equipment and vehicles to sell.
On Sept. 25, 2018, he was arrested by Saskatoon police with a loaded handgun and other firearms in his vehicle.
Harder was sent to the local jail to await trial. He was placed in solitary confinement, or “administrative segregation,” for his own protection. Many of the bikers he testified against were also housed at the jail.
For 743 days, Harder was confined to his cell for at least 23 hours per day. The United Nations defines any solitary confinement of more than 22 hours a day for 15 days or more as “torture” that can cause irreparable psychological and physical damage.
At first, Harder called me every few weeks — sometimes to chat about politics or his kids, and sometimes about the increasing strain of his incarceration. He always maintained he needed the guns for protection after justice officials refused to do so.
Other inmates could be heard in the background on the phone calls, swearing and shouting threats at Harder such as “You rat. Rat! F–king rat!”
His calls became less frequent, his voice weaker, his thoughts more scattered. In one of those final conversations, he said he just wanted to put everything behind him.
In the fall of 2020, Harder pleaded guilty to the weapons possession and was released immediately due to the extraordinary length of time in solitary.
The judge expressed sympathy for him.
“Essentially, two years in a box by yourself,” the judge said, according to a Global News report. “I don’t know what it does to a person psychologically.”
In the days following Harder’s release, I called his wife to ask if they’d like to talk. She said he was fragile and not ready to see anyone.
She and I didn’t speak again until this week, after a colleague noticed Harder’s obituary online.
I called her. She said I should tell his story — the good and the bad — and attend the funeral.
Harder was eulogized Friday morning by the funeral home’s in-house celebrant. His wife and kids, mom and a dozen other family members sat in front, with four more of us dotted around the back pews of the small, wood-panelled chapel.
We learned he was a teen model, walking runways in Amsterdam and other European capitals. He was an expert in the martial art of jiu-jitsu.
He could be a mean brother, handcuffing his sister to the bannister or putting gum in her hair on school picture day. But he was also fiercely protective and loving. He would massage her temples and care for her when she struggled with migraine headaches.
The speaker also said it was his brother Donnie’s death that changed Harder forever.
“He would struggle with those demons, and it’s part of what led us here today,” she said.
Following a lengthy slide show, most of the images showing Harder playing with his children as toddlers, his sister rose and walked to the podium.
She read the poem Desiderata. Noel Harder had recited it for an acting class and read it at Donnie’s funeral.
“The world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism,” she read.
“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”