“The problem with this country is they don’t believe in freedom of speech,” Ernst was saying. “I’m just a publisher. I don’t condone violence, but if it happens, I don’t want to hear about it. What those boys do after they leave the meeting is none of my business.”
I was sitting in the living room of the world’s most notorious Holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel, surrounded by wall-to-wall bookshelves creaking under the weight of Nazi propaganda, revisionist history books and stacks of Did Six Million Really Die?, the booklet that had earned him his reputation. Staring down at us from an ornately framed oil painting was Zundel’s beloved icon, Adolf Hitler.
It was the spring of 1992, and I had just turned 17. Most of my days were spent in Zundel’s Carlton Street townhouse cutting newspaper clippings and assisting with office duties. I also ran errands for him – mailed newsletters at the post office, fetched his favourite goose-liver paté from the corner grocery store. He paid me in meals and attention, which I desperately craved.
I was born in Romania and came to Canada at age 11, two years before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship. My parents split up soon after our arrival, and my father returned to Bucharest, where he died shortly after. By age 16, I was transitioning between my abusive mother’s house and various group and foster homes. I didn’t have any friends and lived in a rough inner-city neighbourhood where other kids picked on me because I didn’t fit in. I missed Romania desperately.
After I ran away from my last foster home and went back to live with my mother, I dropped out of school. I had no hope, no prospects and was filled with rage. That’s when I met Wolfgang Droege, an ex-Klansman and leader of a new nationalist organization calling itself the Heritage Front. Its purported aim was to advocate pride for our European roots. “Why is there a Black History Month and not a European Heritage Month?” was a key recruitment message.
Droege, in turn, introduced me to his close friend Ernst Zundel, who lived a short five-minute walk from my place and needed help around his fortified townhouse. Being the youngest member of the Heritage Front gave my life purpose and direction. They were my newfound family. I had an ideology now; my anger was whittled into shape. When I was hungry or needed a place to sleep, I could depend on Ernst or Wolfgang to help.
Before I met Ernst, I had no animosity toward Jews. But the twisted “facts” that he presented day after day quickly desensitized me to the horrors of the Holocaust. Soon I didn’t even believe it happened.
The Heritage Front’s rapid growth was unparalleled in the history of Canada’s far right – within a year, we were filling meeting halls with hundreds of angry skinheads, many of whom were told to infiltrate the Reform party so that “someday we can take over.”
Both Zundel and Droege mentored me to become a youth recruiter, a writer for their Up Front magazine and a key speaker at rallies. I was labelled the new, softer face of the movement and was trotted out in countless media interviews. I rattled off memorized lines and pretended that I couldn’t be happier.
That summer in Toronto, the Native Canadian Centre on Spadina Road and Pathfinder, a left-wing bookstore on Bloor Street, were both targeted on the same Friday night. The Native Centre had a black swastika painted on its front steps, while the bookstore was marked with a Star of David. A Canadian Jewish Congress member’s Kitchener, Ont., home was firebombed twice, and the Morgentaler abortion clinic blown up. The Heritage Front’s telephone number was spray-painted on the opposing wall, along with the caption, “Peace, Love and White Power!”
Then the street attacks began. Three South Asian men were beaten within a short period of time, two of them to death. The third one, a 41-year old Sri Lankan immigrant named Sivarajah Vinasithamby, who was a former science teacher and father of three, was punched and kicked in the head so violently that he became brain damaged and paralyzed.
The last attack happened right after a concert performance by the Canadian white power band RaHoWa (an abbreviation for Racial Holy War) had ended, and the skinhead convicted was a card-carrying Heritage Front member.
The escalation of violence left me unsettled and questioning where it was all going. When the group began to target women and sexual minorities for harassment and asked me to participate, I knew I’d had enough. For two years, I had absorbed hate like a sponge and used it to numb the pain that was bubbling up inside of me.
Now it was time to take action.
It would be dangerous to leave – I was 18 now and knew too much for them to let me go easily. And besides, I wanted to do more than just drop out – I wanted to make a difference. I needed to make them pay for what they had done.
With the help of anti-racist individuals who had been targeted by the Heritage Front for harassment, I began to spy on the Front. For four long months, I collected information on its leaders’ criminal activities and stole Zundel’s mailing lists. I signed more than two dozen affidavits and provided police with a list of people who owned illegal guns.
Months later, I testified against Droege and two other Heritage Front members in front of a Human Rights Commission tribunal, which resulted in convictions and jail sentences. These convictions, along with the subsequent revelation that Front co-leader Grant Bristow was an undercover CSIS agent, led to the Heritage Front’s dissolution the following year.
Much changed for me in the years that followed. I received my high school diploma, graduated magna cum laude from university, taught English in South Korea and travelled the world. I became a writer, publishing in prestigious literary magazines. Eventually, I journeyed back to Romania and tracked down my father’s old village, and in the process, met long-lost relatives who informed me that my father had been Jewish. After learning more about my family history and reconnecting with other Jewish cousins, I formally converted to Judaism in 2013.
The ugly, brutal world I witnessed as a teenager faded away slowly, to the point that some days I wondered if it hadn’t all been just a bad dream. And then I came across Your Ward News, the racist, anti-Semitic periodical from Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood published by James Sears, and realized in shock that Gary Schipper, one of the men I’d helped send to prison 20 years ago, was now one of its contributing writers.
I was seized with the realization that nothing had changed. The 21st century drove hate groups further underground, cloaked online by virtual private networks and anonymous profile pics, but they still existed and were more connected than ever before. Meeting halls had transformed into clandestine chat rooms, leaflets had morphed into memes, but the extremist ideology still raged like a swirling bonfire, claiming impressionable minds.
A lifetime ago, I stood on a stage, a 17- year-old girl barely tall enough to see over the podium, and made skinheads cheer with hate. At age 30, I stood on another stage and read a poem that made an audience weep. Such is the power of words – they can either uplift or uproot lives, plant seeds of hope or hate into others. Words don’t just wield power – they are power.
It’s so easy to hide behind the veil of free speech – the Zundels of the world seldom get convicted for a crime, even though their venom may serve to justify physical attacks. They may not hold a weapon or pull the trigger, but by fabricating the lies that spark hate in the hearts of alienated youth, they shape misguided rage into a purpose and aim it straight onto a target.
Long after a skinhead goes to jail for bashing someone’s head in with his steel-toed boots, the words that inspired him to take action are still out there in the form of leaflets, newsletters and memes in hidden chat rooms, floating around like dandelion seeds until they land on another lost soul and take root.
And the cycle of violence continues.
Elisa Hategan is a Toronto-area freelance writer and social media marketing consultant. She is the author of the memoir Race Traitor: The True Story of Canadian Intelligence’s Greatest Cover-Up.