What former skinheads say about why they joined hate groups and why they left

"I always wanted to belong to something," one former extremist told Concordia University researchers. "I had failed at sports. I had failed at joining gangs. I had failed at, you know, many different groups of friends, too."

New research taps into experience of one-time extremists to better understand radicalization process

This photograph was taken at a 2010 neo-Nazi rally in Los Angeles. Researchers at Concordia University spoke to 10 former right-wing extremists as part of a study of radicalization. (David McNew/Getty Images)

For years, Canadian authorities downplayed the danger of right-wing extremism, however, they are gradually taking it more seriously.

Canada's ranking on the Global Terrorism Index has climbed several spots in recent editions, driven mainly by a spike in deadly right-wing violence, such as the 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec City and the 2018 van attack in Toronto. 

The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service said last year the agency is now preoccupied by violent right-wing extremism and white supremacists, in addition to its long-standing concern with Islamist terrorism.

And governments across the country are spending increasing amounts of money on research and prevention programs. 

But unlike other countries facing the same issue, little effort has been made in Canada to tap into the experience of former right-wing extremists themselves, to get a better understanding of how to prevent and counter radicalization.

Now a team of researchers working out of Concordia University has published the results of a detailed study about why Canadians join and then leave white-supremacist groups.

The study is unique because it draws from lengthy interviews with 10 former skinheads, eight men and two women, some of whom once occupied leadership roles in violent groups.

In two recent academic articles — one published in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the other in Perspective on Terrorism — the researchers provide access to the thoughts of former extremists.

Maxime Bérubé, left, a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University, and Concordia Prof. Vivek Venkatesh were among the co-authors of the articles based on interviews with former extremists. (Submitted by Concordia University)

These so-called "formers" reflect on how they got drawn into the skinhead movement and what helped them get out. They also offer suggestions on how to improve anti-radicalization efforts aimed at the extreme right. 

"What we're doing here is responding to an urgent academic and a practical need ... and we're favouring the voices of insiders," said Vivek Venkatesh, a Concordia professor who is UNESCO co-Chair in Prevention of Radicalisation and Violent Extremism. Venkatesh co-wrote the articles with Ryan Scrivens, who is now a professor at Michigan State, Maxime Bérubé and Tiana Gaudette.

Here's a closer look at what these former insiders had to say about their experiences in Canada's extreme-right wing movement. 

How radicalization happens

Many of the former skinheads told the researchers they were first exposed to racism through the casual remarks of family members, which often went unchallenged around the home. 

They also described feeling disenfranchised when they were younger, attracted by the prospect of having a social circle.

"I always wanted to belong to something," one former extremist said. "I had failed at sports. I had failed at joining gangs. I had failed at, you know, many different groups of friends, too."

The internet played only a limited role in their radicalization process, mainly because they feared detection. More important was simply hanging out with already radicalized skinheads.

Popular activities included watching movies and documentaries about Nazis and, especially, attending white-power concerts.

These neo-Nazi posters appeared around Toronto in 2018. The former extremists said parents and teachers could have prevented their radicalization. (CBC)

"A lot of people, especially young people, don't wanna listen to long-ass speeches," said one of the interview subjects. "They just want to listen to loud music."

As they became more involved with extremist groups, the people closest to them either missed the signs or didn't care, they said.

In several of the interviews, the former skinheads said teachers and parents could have prevented them from being drawn so deeply into the movement had they reached out.

Another interview subject said he likely wouldn't have become as involved as he did "if somebody had at least pretended they cared about my well-being."

What signs should parents and teachers look for?

Along with the more visible indicators, such as racist tattoos or posters, changes in attire and musical choices, as well as aggressive and anti-social behaviour, can suggest someone is radicalizing, the researchers said.

But the "formers" also warned that tone counts for a lot when trying to broach the subject. Being overly harsh or judgmental could end up having the opposite effect, furthering the radicalization process. 

How to get out

Though there was no one defined pathway for leaving the extremist movement, the "formers" described several similar factors that helped them get out.

Many, for instance, mentioned the importance of a major life change, such as having a child or meeting a romantic partner. One former extremist said it was the birth of his daughter that pushed him to leave the moment.

The internet played only a limited role in the radicalization process, mainly because they feared detection, former extremists said. More important was simply hanging out with already radicalized skinheads. (Getty Images/Sean Gallup)

"How could I teach her to hate those other people ... because of their race, or their religion, or their whatever, right? Like, I couldn't," he said.

Another factor was fatigue. A lifestyle defined by hate wore many of the "formers" down over time. 

"I just got tired of it. Got tired of the negativity," one of the interview subjects said. "It's just constant pissing and moaning about how ... crappy the world is."

It was not uncommon for the former extremists to question their future even while deeply involved in a hate group. But most said they didn't have anyone they could speak with about their doubts. 

One of the major conclusions of the study centres on the importance of having "credible formers" interact with radicals who might be thinking about leaving the movement.

"When people see that these people have the courage to leave, and they kind of ... explain their motivations for leaving, I think that might encourage a lot of people to say, 'You know, maybe this isn't the right thing,'" one former extremist told the researchers.

But leaving a hate group is an uneven and psychologically difficult process. It can also be physically dangerous as "defectors" are often punished. Many moved to different cities after they left.   

They then faced a long period of re-adaptation.

One described feeling completely disorientated back in normal society: "I didn't know what I wanted to wear. I didn't know what box of cereal I wanted to eat. I didn't know what to watch on television." 

And, for many, there was tremendous remorse at having spent so much time and energy hating other people.

"I took a long time and carried, and still carry, so much guilt," said one former extremist. "My self-esteem took a tremendous hit."

"I felt like I was the worst person for a long time."

Part of the team

Listening to the perspectives of former extremists is important for designing effective responses to radicalization, Venkatesh said. 

"We should find ways to integrate their voices."

Many of them also want to help prevent others from making the same mistakes they did. But they also stressed they can't, and shouldn't, do so alone.

"We all have so much baggage," one of ex-skinheads said. "We might not be the best people ... to be taking life skills from."

"But ... I think we could be part of the team to help somebody."


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at


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