During the day, Elisa Hategan would do interviews with the press and speak about being proud of her European heritage in front of crowds. But by night, she and her fellow white supremacists would talk about how to gather weapons and how to prepare for combat to “take Canada back.”
Hategan is a former white supremacist who helped shut down the Heritage Front, one of Canada’s most powerful white supremacist groups in the ’90s.
She immigrated from then-communist Romania as a young girl. Her father died, and her mother was abusive. Hategan ended up in a foster home.
“I was 16, just dropped out of high school and really angry and alone and didn’t have a sense of belonging, didn’t know who I was,” Hategan said. “And one day, I was watching television and I saw a guy, clean-cut man in a suit, talking about: ‘What’s wrong with being proud of your European heritage?'”
Her life changed forever. She was soon the face of the organization — a clean-cut, innocent-looking European girl.
“I was groomed very quickly, within a month or two. I was speaking at rallies, I was paraded in front of the media as a spokesperson for the organization and I was taught how to recruit other people,” she explained. The trick? Find a person’s worst fear and let it fester.
“Maybe they lost a scholarship to an Asian student, or their girlfriend left them for a black guy. Whatever it was, I would start to figure it out and go in for the kill,” Hategan said.
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The message was this: hate is self-preservation. Hategan says today’s hateful messages are now disguised as free speech.
Experts say white supremacy has evolved and now has a new face, driven in large part by the rise of the so-called alt-right.
White supremacists believe the white race is in danger of extinction — they feel like they are being replaced — and blame non-white people for their national economic troubles.
But as they move from online activism into the real world, white supremacists, typically seen as middle-aged and overwhelmingly male, aren’t as easily identifiable as one may think, Perry said.
“They’re not wearing the white robes of the [Ku Klux] Klan and they’re not wearing the black leather jackets of the skinheads,” said Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism.
Perry, who is also a professor at Ontario Tech University, says she’s seen a shift and that white supremacists are no longer easily identifiable.
“Many of them are white-collar workers. They’re well educated, they’re sophisticated in their use of technology, they’re sophisticated in their language and their construction of narratives, so the movement really has changed its face,” she said.
In the U.S., public white supremacist events have increased by 123 per cent since 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a U.S. organization that combats hate and discrimination.
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By 2018, the number of known hate groups in the U.S. rose to its highest level in two decades, pushed by a combination of political polarization, anti-immigrant sentiment and social media platforms that spread propaganda online, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“What is different now is people are more empowered to come out with their beliefs, thinking that it’s become normalized because of various factors such as the Trump election in the States, the rise of nationalism throughout Europe and Brazil and throughout the world,” Hategan said.
And sometimes, it can have deadly consequences. On March 15, a man murdered 51 worshippers and critically wounded several others at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“These are not lone actors. They acted individually but they’re shaped by a greater collective of which they’re a part,” Perry said.
The guns used in the mass killing were decorated with the names of several violent white supremacists. Experts believe there is a trickle-down effect when it comes to feeling emboldened.
“When people turn on the TV and they see constant battling between the left and the right, they see Trump saying openly racist things on CNN and they’re feeling enabled that they, too, can now come forward and share beliefs that they previously thought were embarrassing or shameful,” Hategan said.
Both Hategan and Perry say the movement no longer has borders.
“Back in the ’90s and early 2000s, when a white supremacist recruiter wanted to indoctrinate other people, they would have to sit down and be in the same geographical setting,” Hategan said.
“Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, somebody can recruit from 2,000 miles away. The message propagates faster than anything we’ve ever seen before.”
Recruiting tactics, meanwhile, are ruthless. She says they befriend those with low self-esteem, the people who feel like they don’t belong.
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Looking back through history, the Ku Klux Klan emerged in the U.S. in the late 1800s and re-emerged in the 1920s, when public lynching and racial terrorism were common practice.
It came back again the 1980s, except this time with neo-Nazi influence from white-power skinheads.
Experts say the last wave is where we are now, with mostly white, middle-class men who believe the rights gained by immigrants or other minorities are a sign of their rights being taken away.
And the movement continues to spread online and in the dark web, sometimes inspiring mass killings.
In October 2018, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Alexandre Bissonnette massacred six Muslims in a Quebec City mosque in 2017. Dylann Roof murdered nine black Christian parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. And Anders Behring Breivik slaughtered 77 people in Norway in 2011.
The problem today, Hategan says, is that online recruitment and hate speech are difficult to shut down.
“It’s like an infection that keeps spreading and spreading,” she said.
That’s why Vivek Venkatesh says we have to equip our youth and teachers with the digital literacy skills to be able to recognize hate speech and start an open, judgment-free dialogue. Venkatesh runs Project Someone, an international initiative that combats online hate and radicalization.
When faced with a racist comment or a discriminatory action, Venkatesh says we have to break down the origin of that remark or action.
“What were you trying to express? What kind of fear of the other are you experiencing that makes you, in fact, conduct yourself in such a hateful fashion?” he said.
“It might be even better for us to be able to engage in those dialogues without necessarily processing this through a lens of guilt.”
As for Hategan, she says all she ever really needed was to feel accepted. After some time with the white supremacy group, she says she was tasked with terrorizing a lesbian activist. But at the time, she was coming to the realization that she was gay herself.
Torn and not sure what to do, Hategan tried to take her own life. But before she could be released from hospital, she had to call someone.
“I reached in my pocket, and the phone number I had in my pocket was the number of that lesbian anti-racist activist and I called her that night, and after that, we spoke in secret for a month,” Hategan said.
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That was the turning point for Hategan. At that point, she says she decided not only to leave the Heritage Front but to spy on the group in an effort to shut it down.
Through this whole experience, she says she has understood that it’s up to us to educate ourselves and those around us to break down misconceptions.
“Racism doesn’t have a colour or doesn’t have a border. It’s endemic and it’s up to all of us to work to shut it down,” she said.
Speaking as a former white supremacist, Hategan says all she needed was to be accepted.