Former Quebec neo-Nazi speaks out about how he learned to hate minorities
Snow has since snuffed out the candles and covered the flowers and heartfelt messages left at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, where six men were killed just as they'd finished evening prayers on Jan. 29, 2017.
Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old student at Laval University, waits in jail, charged with six counts of first-degree murder and five counts of attempted murder.
The public mood in the province remains — in a word — raw.
Conversations at home, at work, in classrooms and cafes are painful, gut-wrenching.
How could this have happened here?
Maxime Fiset thinks he knows. He says the killer could have been him.
Maxime is 28. He grew up in a Quebec City suburb and became a pro-Nazi white supremacist, attracted to violence. He founded of one of Quebec's far right-wing organizations, and a provincial court found him guilty of inciting hatred.
But over the last few years, Maxime Fiset's life, his world view and his politics have radically changed.
This is a partial transcript that has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the David Gutnick's full interview with Maxime Fiset, click 'play' on the audio above.
Maxime Fiset: I want to share some books that are going to blow your mind.… The Improvised Munitions Handbook, Explosives and Demolitions, Booby Traps, Sniper Training and Employment, Guerrilla Warfare and Special Forces Operations. I read them all when I was 21. They're very easy to come by.
David Gutnick: So what are you doing with this stuff?
MF: What was I doing? I was planning a terrorist attack, of course. What else could you do with those books?
I was dirt poor. I was living on a street behind a psychiatric hospital. I was alone and isolated. I was depressed, and all I wanted was to end my life. And, of course, since I was radicalized, the only way I thought of to end my life was a terrorist attack.
DG: When did you start to become political?
MG: It was in secondary three [grade nine], when I was, like, 14. I had this teacher. He was awesome. He knew everything about French. He was like the French God. And he had this way of teaching that, you know, made you feel like you actually could learn stuff having fun. But he was also openly nationalist, a fierce independentist.
Secondary four, I was really depressed.… I had this depressed phase and lots of questioning that came with it. I started looking for answers, and in secondary five, there was this history class that made us study the 20th century.
And, of course, you can't really speak of the 20th century without referring to Nazi Germany. And so I made a project on the NSDAP — actually, their political platform. And since I was very nationalist, I thought maybe we could use them here, in our project for independence.
DG: You were attracted to Hitler, to all of that?
MF: Well, I didn't actually understand what it meant. I knew that he killed lots of people, that he was mostly responsible for World War II. But you know, on the Internet you easily find people who say that it was not such a bad guy.
So I finish my school year on June 23rd, and that same day I start working at night. In one of my first shifts, like maybe a week after I started working, I met neo-Nazis skinheads. I was kind of scared, but they ended up being very friendly, and they pointed me to websites that were openly white nationalist such as Stormfront. Me, as a kid, I was a buyer for answers, and — well, I got stuck.
The people I knew in the extreme-right movements that are still there are very anti-Semitic. They won't admit it, but they are. I can spot a Jewish person when I meet one, just because I spent years getting up in the night hating Jews for nothing.
DG: Had you ever met any Jews?
MF: No. When I was a kid I never met a Jewish person. Ever. But when I became a neo-Nazi, I was told about the Jewish conspiracy. And of course, I started hating Jews, and I'm not exactly proud of that.
I founded the Fédération des Québécois de souche, the FQS. It still exists today. It's a crypto-Nazi organization, because the guys who run this are violent neo-Nazis, but now they're just trying to play smart and gain some legitimacy by not openly expressing their views.
DG: So they're still around Quebec City, the federation of pure Québécois?
MF: Yeah, that's it.
DG: And for you, what is that?
MF: Well, it's anyone who's obviously white, from Christian ancestry — so no Jews, no Muslims, and of course, no Native Canadians. So I thought that Quebec belonged to this kind of people.
I was crazy, but not crazy like the ones who get sent to psychiatric hospitals, the ones who need actual help. I was crazy because my beliefs were crazy. I was a neo-Nazi. I almost did a terrorist attack. I made plans for a detonator that I based on plans that I found in my books.
I didn't have blasting caps. So I had to design my own detonator with nail gun caps. And that's when I realized that it was not fantasy anymore. It was actual planning.
DG: And it was planning against who?
MF: I don't know. Enemies of the nation. Everybody is an enemy of the nation when you're that alienated. News people. Muslims and minorities. Politicians. Every one of them could have been a target. Every group, every mosque, Parliament, every press conference could have been a target.
DG: So why didn't it happen?
MF: Breakers. Mental breakers. You know why the army is training soldiers for years before they send them to battle? Because most people have this mental breaker that just snaps before you get to kill someone. Like in your electric box, the breakers: when there's a surge, it just snaps and there's no power. That's the same thing. I didn't want to kill people. That's when I said, "OK, that's enough. I'm disengaging. I'm just going to step back like try to do something else."
I had a job in a grocery store. And I liked it. It was fun. I got to meet people that were not Québécois. I felt more at peace, because even though I did something that most people deem as bad, I still had a place, you know? So maybe it was not all over. Maybe I didn't have to die and kill people doing so. Maybe I could have a life.
When you work, you don't have time to just brood about ideas in the dark. You can actually go out and do something. Get busy. I had disengaged. I was still very active, but it was not the centre of my life because I was busy. So couple years working, up to 2011.
I started dating my current girlfriend. When you're in love you can't really be mad against the world. And at some point in 2012 she becomes pregnant.
And you remember the Maple Spring, when Quebec students took over the streets in opposition to the government. I was completely in favor of abolition of tuition.
But my comrades in the Nazi movement, in the ultra-nationalist movement, they were against the students. And some of them even said that … you know, they were in the army, and they said if we're deployed I'm going to be happy to shoot at the students. And I was like, but how can you say that you hold the truth, when you don't want people to become [educated]?
DG: So you're starting to feel uneasy with all of this, then.
MF: Well, it didn't make sense anymore. I thought that we had it right. So in my view, going to university was great, but my comrades didn't think so. And that was a conflict that made me realize that, first, I think they like being stupid. And since I wasn't stupid, how could I be like them?
I also asked myself, do I want my daughter to be born in a world filled with these neo-Nazis running everywhere and running everything? No, of course not.
So I consciously replaced my views, which were pretty much based on elitism and exclusivism, by humanism.
DG: So it's a conscious decision, as you go through your belief system? You're changing them.
MF: Yes, it's what we call deconstruction.
DG: You do it to yourself?
MF: Of course, everybody should. If you don't deconstruct your beliefs, how do you know they are the right ones? You've got to go through everything that you hold sacred to know what is sacred. And I did. Three years later, I understood that I had been wrong. I was just shutting the door. The guy, the nationalist Maxime, who had been a neo-Nazi, who almost committed a terrorist attack — that wasn't me anymore at all.
DG: So is there a growing movement like this in Quebec?
MF: I don't know if it's growing. They're more active, but they have always been there. It's just more open now. Before last Sunday, people would feel that they had the right to say Islamophobic things. But when I was a kid, and even when I was a young adult, you didn't get to say these things without being blasted. Nobody would want to hear this. But I took part in legitimizing this hate speech, partly because of social media.
You know, you can't radicalize without a context. It doesn't happen out of the blue. It's common now to hear Islamophobic things everywhere in the media, on social media, at work, at school. You hear these things, and it becomes normalized. It has normalized racism. These hateful people give terrorists a reason to become one.
Radicalization, it's not about being crazy, it's about thinking that you've got it all right, and people need to die for your beliefs. And that's the textbook definition of terrorism, to use violence or threats against a group to fulfill an ideological agenda.
DG: So you're working now to try and stop kids from becoming like you were.
MF: Yeah. I thought that we had more time. I've been warning people since last November. November 1st, there was this big conference in Quebec City on radicalization. I took part in it. It was my first appearance in the media, but there have been some people that have been warning society as a whole for years that this was on the rise.
So I'm not the first one to say it, but I thought that we had more time before such a terrible thing happened. And maybe we had a year or two years to tell people about radicalization, how to recognize it, how to prevent it, how to activate networks of people who can help radicalized youth.
I work with the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence in Montreal. For now, we teach teachers. It really is prevention, because if there radicalization, there's a person in pain. You don't become radicalized because you're well in your life. There's going to be something that motivates you to become this radicalized person, just like street gangs, drugs. It is a problem that we as a society have a responsibility to prevent.
DG: Do you think Quebec is different than the rest of the country?
MF: Not necessarily different. There is one difference though. Here, we have this very nationalist party on the provincial scale, and their project for a charter of values, that was a bad move. It did not unite people, it divided people. It created more exclusion and made more people vulnerable.
But you know, you have extreme-right folks everywhere in the world. In every Western country, you have extreme-right groups. You have neo-Nazi skinheads, you have Islamophobic [web] pages.
So you see it's not only in Quebec, but of course, Quebec has a big problem about it.
DF: But you're a French-Canadian saying this. A nationalist.
MF: I was nationalist. I'm not anymore. Not at all. In Quebec, nationalism has a responsibility to start deconstructing itself and asking questions. What do we want as a nation? Let's say that Quebec was to separate. OK. What we need to discuss is how it affects people, especially vulnerable people, like minorities, Muslims. These persons are Quebecers too.
Everybody remembers the words of "money and the ethnic vote." [Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed the loss of the 1995 referendum on "money and the ethnic vote."] I took it personally when I was a kid, and it just brought me to believe, at some point, that some rich people were actually involved in forcing the government to allow massive immigration to dilute Quebec culture. I believed that.
DG: What is the tragedy at the mosque going to mean for Quebec?
MF: Most people are sincerely touched by what happened, and I think that it's an occasion for us in Quebec, but also in Canada, as a whole, to speak.
DG: Talk is going to change people's ideas?
MF: It's already begun. There's a 6,000-person page on Facebook in Quebec that is supposedly against Islamization that has said, we're shutting off, because they feel they have a responsibility in what happened. People talk, and it might change things for the better.
- Full coverage of the Quebec City mosque attack
- Full coverage: Inside the far right in Quebec
- Inside Quebec's far right: Radical groups push extreme message
- The Current: Mosque attack forces Quebec politicians to confront inflammatory rhetoric
- The Sunday Edition: Exploring the roots of Islamophobia
- Day 6: Quebec's growing far right fringe faces scrutiny after the mosque attack
Click the 'play' button above to hear David Gutnick's full conversation with Maxime Fiset. The partial transcript above has been edited for length and clarity.