Brad Galloway went quiet as he looked at the photos that showed him how he used to be: head shaved, arm raised in the Nazi salute, posing for a team picture with fellow skinheads.
For 13 years, Galloway was a fixture in the Canadian racist scene, initially with the Toronto skinhead movement and later in British Columbia as the national leader of Volksfront.
But then he walked away.
Today, he is a criminology student at the University of the Fraser Valley. He worked on a major research project on youth radicalization and volunteers with an organization that helps others quit extremism.
“Hate brings you nothing but trouble,” he said.
The story of his journey out of the hate movement is important because it speaks to a question at the heart of an emerging national security challenge: how does someone leave an extremist group?
In the online age, it’s not hard to get mixed up with violent radicals. But as Canada debates what to do about returning terrorist fighters, and with right-wing extremism a “growing concern,” what does it take to get out?
“It’s not an easy thing to do,” said Terry Wilson, a retired police detective who crossed paths with Galloway while serving in hate crimes units in southern Ontario and B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
“You become extremely lonely. All your previous friends won’t talk to you because you’re a racist, and all your racist friends won’t talk to you because you’re having doubts.”
When he first met a reporter in 2016 to discuss coming out as a reformed racist leader, Galloway, 37, wore long sleeves that hid the tattoos that once symbolized his commitment to the white nationalist cause.
Almost two years later, the tattoos have been inked over, including the one in the middle of his back. It was the logo of Volksfront, an Oregon-based racist group whose motto was “Race Over All.”
Formed by U.S. prison inmates, Volksfront was “the most active neo-Nazi group on the West Coast,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Recruits were required to swear they had no traces of Jewish ancestry.
Volksfront wanted “Aryan autonomy for North America” and claimed to have purchased land in the Pacific Northwest for a whites-only homeland. Beatings and intimidation of minorities were among its methods.
The group’s leader, Randy Krager, was convicted of phoning Jews and threatening to slit their throats and burn their homes. His followers threw swastika-etched rocks through the windows of a synagogue during a service. Another fired 10 shots at the synagogue.
Galloway was president of the Volksfront chapter in Canada. He attended meetings in Washington and Oregon, and recruited members, both online and off. It was a time of drinking, partying to racist bands and what he now calls the “delusional” pursuit of a separate white country. But after becoming a husband and father, he began to doubt. He asked himself whether he could indoctrinate his daughter into racist ideals. He decided he could not.
“For many, there’s typically a point where the whole thing ceases to make any sense, where the simplistic logic just falls apart,” said Randy Blazak, an Oregon academic who studied Volksfront and knows Galloway. “Brad is a smart guy and it’s clear that he hit that realization that the racist rationale just doesn’t add up.”
Family and extremism collided again on a cruise vacation. U.S. immigration authorities hauled Galloway off the ship when it docked in Florida and deported him. Then he lost his job at Vancouver airport, leaving him struggling to provide for his young family.
The tension between racism and home life came to a head when two members of a rival neo-Nazi group turned up at his door. They had been sent to seize his “patch,” symbolically deposing him. Galloway believes they were carrying handguns.
They left without any trouble but when Galloway saw his daughter at the window, watching, he knew he had to make a choice. It was either “that lifestyle or family,” he said. His wife asked him if he could name anything good about his involvement in racism.
“I couldn’t,” he said.
The members of his group took it “fairly well” when he told them he was done. “There was no animosity,” he said. He believes they saw it coming, and some of them soon left as well.
The family decided to move. It was a way of disconnecting from that world and starting over, he said. People in the movement still contacted him online but he ignored them.
Galloway’s wife stood by him, but after so many years in racist groups, adjusting to normalcy was hard. He didn’t know what to do next.
“The first year of leaving, I refer to it as the void,” Galloway said.
He began working two jobs and eventually went back to school. He spent more time parenting. He tried counseling to see if it would help. “I kept myself busy,” he said.
Being on the outside for the first time since his teens, he saw the senselessness of it. “You spend so long wrapped up in these ideologies and s—ty groups,” he said. “What’s the point? You start really seeing that there actually isn’t a point.”
He found himself thinking about things like the orthodox Jewish doctor who’d once saved his life, and the Jamaican he’d worked with and liked. He asked himself, “Why would I hate these people?”
Being out of the movement brought a sense of relief. The extremist lifestyle took so much effort. It was draining. “Every day, having to get up and judge people and judge society,” he said.
That’s a common sentiment among those who quit extremist groups, said Wilson, who spent 15 years at the London Police Service before joining the B.C. Hate Crimes Team. He is now a hate crimes consultant.
“It becomes exhausting for them,” he said. “It’s the most tiring thing to be because you’re constantly, on a daily basis, faced with the truths and contradictions.”
Blazak, who chairs the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crime, said it wasn’t unusual for hate group members to find they don’t really believe the ideals they stood for.
“I think that’s the case for a lot of these guys, they’re into it for the emotional reasons, for the hyper-masculine element of it,” he said. “It’s very similar to street gangs, where dad’s missing, there’s a lot of chaos in their family and they’ve got this tight knit macho world that they can plug in to that makes them feel like they’re doing something important.”
Galloway reached out to Life After Hate, a non-profit that helps people disengage from extremist groups. He befriended a former racist who talked to him and sent him links to reading materials.
He later began mentoring others. “That’s been a positive thing,” he said. And he’s been speaking to community groups, police and researchers about his experiences. His message is optimistic: there is a way out and he is living proof.
“You can leave,” he said. “It can be done so try, try your best to leave it behind.”
“Some of the things that I suggest are get a job, start trying to socialize with positive peers, join the sports team you used to be on, or join the hockey league you used to play in. Try to reattach to all those things that are positive.”
“Start reading again, take a couple of courses. Just try to attach to positive things. And stay offline. Try to stay away from the online world of hate because it’s so accessible today,” he said.
“Whichever type of extremism, whether its IRA or far-right or jihadi or whatever, you just have to break those things that you do on a daily basis and break those routines and habits.”
Ryan Scrivens, an academic who has been researching the Canadian far-right, said it was important for former extremists to speak up “because it shows that people can leave a life of hate.”
“No matter how involved someone is in an extremist movement, there is hope that they can rebuild their lives,” said Scrivens, the Horizon Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Concordia University.
Galloway believes racist and Islamist extremist groups have a lot in common, notably the sense of belonging and purpose they promise disenfranchised youths inclined towards high-risk behavior.
But he said his experience had taught him that arguing over beliefs and doctrine was less important than simply daring extremists to look beyond their narrow worldview.
“It’s not challenging ideology,” he said. “I think it’s challenging people in these groups to think just a little broader.”
As an extremist, he had been missing so much. He wasted so much time on nothing. He was consumed by negativity.
“Why live like that?”
“That’s what I kept telling myself. I think I can be better than this person.”