Early in March, an officer with the Ontario Provincial Police’s Hate Crimes Unit contacted me about the case of the 17-year-old skinhead who defaced several Ottawa Jewish buildings, a mosque and a church led by a black minister. Given my background as a teenager who defected from the Heritage Front, Canada’s largest white supremacist group, the police wondered if I would be willing to reach out to this young man and encourage him to turn away from hate.
At his age, I’d ticked similar checkboxes: high school dropout, former group home resident, friendless and angry at the cards I’d been dealt. But as I contemplated the possibility of meeting a skinhead who, according to court testimony, had refused treatment and continues to hold racist beliefs, the only question I asked was: Does he want to change?
After leaving the neo-Nazi movement, I spent four years at the University of Ottawa earning a criminology degree that centred on understanding the nature of unlawful behaviour. I wrote term papers about young offenders, read studies published in highly respected journals, listened as social justice advocates attempted to explain how people like my teenage self got recruited by extremist or criminal gangs and, more importantly, how we could be rehabilitated.
‘You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved’
But, in the end, I realized that no amount of social programs and restorative justice approaches could bring about a profound change in an individual who isn’t willing to take that first step toward having an open dialogue with those he hates. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. The desire for change must come from within. If that seed doesn’t take root in one’s heart, no amount of watering and encouragement from the community can make it come alive.
Armoured with hate, extremists are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. Trust is an essential component of two-way dialogue, and a major reason why rehabilitation efforts often fail. The mistake rests with the idea that you can reach out with an olive branch and an encyclopedia of facts, and the extremist will suddenly face a “Eureka” moment of profound realization and repentance.
But how can you win a debate with a fanatic, when you are on one side and God is on the other? Is it even possible to deprogram someone so indoctrinated by religion or ideology that he believes a higher authority is behind him?
‘All the evidence in the world won’t matter if he believes you are part of a global conspiracy by Jewish elites to rule the world and destroy the white race’
When a child has an irrational fear of, say, monsters lurking under the bed, one can deal with their fright because of the trust ingrained in the parent-child relationship. But when someone distrusts you because of your ethnicity and refuses to open up to a new belief system, no amount of reasoning will change that person’s mind. All the evidence in the world won’t matter if he believes you are part of a global conspiracy by Jewish elites to rule the world and destroy the white race.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make an attempt to reach out. I know from personal experience how critical it is to have support in place for former extremists to turn to. When you’re in a hate group, it becomes your world. Even after experiencing internal conflict, many people continue to hang out with extremists, because they fear returning to a time when they were friendless and alone.
I owe my life to the brave community of activists who helped me escape the network of hate that had swallowed me up. But they couldn’t have helped me, if I hadn’t realized, deep inside, that I actually needed their help – if I hadn’t felt that initial pang of guilt and wanted to make amends.
At 18, I fled the Heritage Front and testified against neo-Nazi leaders in court. In the months leading up to the trial, I lived in hiding, couch-surfing across Canada. I stayed with aboriginal activists, a black reverend, Jewish community members, gay couples, francophones, senior citizens – people of all nationalities, who opened their doors to me. Their kindness touched me and impacts me to this day, inspiring me, in turn, to perpetuate random acts of kindness.
How I wish I could tell this young man who’s consumed with hate about how my life has been enriched since I opened up to the world and its beauty. In the last two decades, I have traveled the world, discovered my Jewish roots and converted to Judaism. None of it could have happened if I hadn’t taken that first step.
But the teenaged skinhead who set off such a scare in Ottawa, and throughout the Canadian Jewish community, isn’t ready for that right now. Someday, I hope, he might be.
Elisa Hategan is the author of the memoir, Race Traitor: The True Story of Canadian Intelligence’s Greatest Cover-Up.