I first found Race Traitor by local author Elisa Hategan when I was searching on Amazon for new memoirs to read on my Kindle. Here’s what another reader had to say about her book:
“…It is all at once an adventure, an exposé, and a young woman’s coming-of-age story.
The inside story on the still-relevant white supremacist movement is bizarre, fascinating, and reads like fiction, but every word of this story is true. The book moves through the streets of downtown Toronto, as the Heritage Front recruits cynical and disenfranchised young white males, and some of the most notorious Canada-based neo-nazis and their aging supporters meet in a Cabbagetown townhouse to literally sing the praises of Hitler and the Third Reich, and plot to take over a Caribbean island to create a whites-only nation.
Moreover, Race Traitor is more than the story of old nazi-sympathizers, skinheads, and the woman who briefly loved them — in a bizarre twist, our own government through CSIS created a false-flag white supremacist movement called the Heritage Front. The object was to ferret out neo-nazis in our midst, but the agent heading the operation got out of control. Drunk on power and the adoration of his minions, the Heritage Front became the organ for his own personal agenda. This is the story of the girl who brought him down.” — Amazon reviewer
I had to read it. I quickly finished the book and was left with a “book hangover” that just wouldn’t leave. I obsessed over it for a few days and even started a Goodreads discussion about it. I was so angry at the Canadian government, and I had so many unanswered questions for Elisa. With her background, how could she reconcile joining the Heritage Front? And of course, why would our own government fund the Heritage Front?!
I also had a few business questions for her. Elisa was courted by Penguin, but walked away from negotiations and started her own imprint, Incognito Press. I asked her about her thoughts on self-publishing vs. traditional, and about the possibility of seeing Race Traitor on the big screen.
When you joined the Heritage Front, how did you reconcile your Jewish background and sexual orientation with their intolerant values?
The short answer is, I didn’t know my father was Jewish. I grew up in communist Romania, where religion didn’t play a significant part in people’s upbringing. Both my parents were secular, with my father in particular being entirely nonreligious. As a family, we never attended church. Although I’d heard rumours from relatives of possible Jewish ancestry on my paternal side, I’d dismissed it. My father died when I was thirteen and I had no contact with his side of the family.
At the time I joined the Heritage Front, I didn’t have anti-Jewish sentiments; my anger stemmed mostly from being picked on by the black kids in my group home, and feeling singled out because I’d been the only white girl in that facility. It was only after I was introduced to Ernst Zundel and continuously being exposed to his commentary about the Holocaust having been a hoax that I became an anti-Semite. I remained in denial about my possible Jewish ancestry until after I’d left the group. It was only when I went back to Romania in 2001 and reconnected with my father’s side of the family, learning more about my grandmother’s past, that his Jewish background emerged.
As for my sexual orientation, I was deeply in denial. When I joined the Heritage Front I was a lonely and introverted sixteen year old who had never kissed a boy, much less thought about romance. I assumed I was straight because, that seemed the only option. I didn’t know of any gay people and my parents (like most East Europeans) considered homosexuality abnormal, a mental disease. I considered the little bit of experimentation I’d had with my best female friend in childhood as just a game, and figured that with enough time I would fall in love with a man. But that never happened.
I was forced to confront the fact that I was gay after leaders in the Heritage Front kept pressuring me to date people and tried to fix me up. I refused to date anybody, mostly because I wasn’t attracted to any of them. What made me different from all the other girls involved in the movement is that I was the only female in a position of leadership and being groomed to be a future leader. Throughout the two years I was involved, I was never involved with any men in the Heritage Front.
Finally, after Droege and Bristow gave me the telephone number and address of a lesbian activist and encouraged me to take part in a harassment campaign against the left-wing community activists, I realized the truth about myself and knew that I had to do something to stop them.
Your descriptions of your mother’s abuse and cruelty to animals left me stunned. How did you forgive her for all of the pain that she caused you?
For most of my life, forgiveness wasn’t something I could even contemplate. I’ve never believed that forgiveness is a necessary part of healing, despite society’s pop psychology approach that forgiving is best. I didn’t want to be dishonest to the pain I felt growing up; the idea of forgiving my parents felt like a betrayal to the child I once was. My commitment has always been to the truth, however ugly. I don’t think that forgiveness is a healthy thing, unless the act of forgiveness liberates you rather than absolve someone who may not deserve it.
But I didn’t have a choice in the matter; in the end, forgiveness was imposed upon me, almost against my will. My mother developed early onset Alzheimer’s over the past decade, and eventually passed away last December. As angry as I was with her, I found myself increasingly having to assist her with basic needs like shopping for groceries and paying her bills. She became childlike, so excited to see me, and the person who she had been gradually faded away.
It was a terrible thing, in the sense that the person I was so angry with gradually died, a death of a thousand cuts, and in her place was this vulnerable, frail little child of a woman who desperately wanted to connect with me, to love me. I had to forgive her, because my abuser had already died. So I was there for her as much as I could be, and she died in my arms.
It took me a long time to understand that both my parents were the by-product of a society that treated deaf people as animals. As a little girl, nobody had ever taught my mother how to love. Her own mother disposed her on the doorstep of a relative’s home, and for the first ten years of her life she lived in the shed and looked after animals. She was severely malnourished and abused, and sometime around age twelve she was raped by village boys. A priest found out about what had happened and stepped in to arrange for her to be sent away to a special boarding school for deaf girls. I realize now that my mother did the best she could, despite her failures.
My parents lived much of their lives in a cruel world that wounded people’s spirits and numbed their hearts. Multigenerational pain and cruelty inflicted by an oppressive regime and small-minded people can pass down through generations, and it’s something that happened to me.
One thing that really boggled my mind was that a CSIS agent was behind the Heritage Front. I could not wrap my head around why the Canadian government would want to start, run, and support a white supremacist organization and who would benefit from it. Why do you think that the government did this?
I feel Operation Governor initially started with good intentions: monitor extremist threats. And what better way to have an inside scoop into a radical organization than be there from its inception? I don’t think anyone expected that the agent would get so far down the rabbit hole that he became more dangerous than many of the white supremacists he was supposed to monitor.
However, Bristow couldn’t have done what he did in a vacuum. His escalation of criminal that could not have gone undetected by his handlers, who were aware (and I would argue complicit) with the criminal activity he instigated through others and he himself committed.
What history has shown, time and again, is that the vast majority of radical terrorist-wannabes are all talk and no action. And what tends to happen over time is that a lot of money and manpower gets sunk into sting or monitoring-type activity that leads nowhere. The inevitable question eventually gets brought up — How can we justify this operation? And that’s when some unscrupulous agents cross the line into unethical territory, such as giving a suspect the money, maps and explosives necessary to actually carry out a terrorist action.
When you have a CSIS agent approach dangerous skinheads, some with criminal records for assault, and give them the names and addresses of left-wing community activists, you’ve crossed the line. When you ask a minor (I was seventeen when I was first approached about targeting anti-racists for harassment and threats) to commit illegal acts, you are also responsible for the corruption of a minor.
Furthermore, CSIS shouldn’t have footed the bills for Heritage Front material, meals, etc, and paid for the rental of meeting halls where concerts and rallies took place. After one such concert, a drunken skinhead who was all pumped up from the rally went out and beat a Sri Lankan immigrant to death. This concert may never have taken place if the funds for the rental hadn’t been provided.
In the case of Operation Governor, there were a few rotten apples inside CSIS who I honestly believe didn’t care about the consequences. If Heritage Front members attacked or killed their opponents, their spying operation would be justified. And worse of all, they enjoyed it. Grant Bristow enjoyed tormenting the people he stalked and harassed over the phone. He was having too much fun, sadistically targeting women in particular for abuse and potential attacks.
The most recent example of abuse of power played out in British Columbia in July 2016, when a judge overturned the guilty verdicts of two heroin-addicted Muslim converts who had been convicted of plotting to blow up a government building on Canada Day. The judge ruled that RCMP entrapment was a serious abuse of the entire legal system. Sadly, in Grant Bristow’s case, CSIS had no overseers — instead, SIRC (Security Intelligence Review Committee — the folks who were supposed to police CSIS) published a whitewashed report soon after the scandal broke out without having interviewed a number of victims and witnesses, myself included. This led to a second inquiry in the House of Commons, where I testified in front of a Parliamentary Subcommittee about what I’d witnessed.
By then Bristow had been “packaged out” and living comfortably in the Witness Protection Program. He would never be prosecuted for his crimes, despite every effort made by prominent lawyers Paul Copeland and Clayton Ruby to get him interviewed by police and charged. And what’s worse is that for all the millions spent over the years to build up the Heritage Front, Bristow never testified against any white supremacists (as I had done). After all the cash that CSIS poured into building up this domestic terrorist group, no Canadian white supremacists were ever prosecuted and convicted because of Bristow’s evidence.
Your story was the basis behind CBC’s TV movie White Lies, but all of the things that made it interesting (including the government conspiracy) were left out. Would you be interested in having your book and your true story being made into an accurate movie in the future?
Yes, of course. The rights to my memoir are still available, and the story of CSIS’ biggest scandal — which is a part of Canadian history — still hasn’t been told on screen.
White Lies was a movie that has long since faded into oblivion, largely due to the inauthenticity of the storyline. By making the decision to go behind my back to conduct their research (to study the newspapers I was featured in, as well as interview people who knew me rather than actually reach out to me in person) the producer made the fatal error of omitting the most interesting and explosive parts of my story. He seemed to be more fixated on the idea of making a film about a typical girl next door, including putting in exploitative heterosexual sex scenes that never occurred, than in telling the truth of what happened.
Over the past year, my memoir has generated some interest from US Hollywood producers, but right now I’m just talking with people and taking my time to negotiate selling the film rights. It’s very important to me that whoever options the rights has the backing of a major studio. In the meanwhile, I’ve agreed to filming a PBS special in New York next spring.
You have your own publishing imprint, Incognito Press. What made you decide to start an imprint and self-publish your memoir? What do you think are the benefits and disadvantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing?
This is a loaded question, and one I tackled in my 2012 memoir Alice in Writerland. It’s impossible to summarize both sides of the seemingly never-ending debate, but I’d like to point out that the publishing world is in a transition period and nobody — not agents, not publishers, not even the authors — knows what is going to happen over the decade to come. One thing is clear — we’re moving away from the traditional world where an agent and publisher (aka the official gatekeepers) can dictate what sells. It’s the market — the audience — that now determines what is in demand, as we can see by the incredible successes of self-published authors who sold several thousands of books and were subsequently offered trad book deals.
The average traditionally-published book sells less than a thousand copies. A best-seller in Canada is a book that sells approx. 5000 copies, but very few will make it. Essentially, if it wasn’t for the few writers who sell a million copies, publishing as we know it would collapse. Royalties from the one percent are subsidizing the publishing industry. This is what makes publishers so desperate, and determined to find the next sparkly vampire drivel over books of literary significance.
But in those rejections, there’s hope for the indie writer — if you can develop your own platform and show that you’ve sold a few thousand copies of your self-published book, it’s very likely that you will catch an agent or publisher’s attention. This is, of course, assuming that you still want to get a traditional book deal — something that in this economy, what with shrinking advances and royalties, you may end up reconsidering. To be honest, I’ve earned more in the last year selling my books directly than I would have received as an advance from a traditional publisher.
Many people probably know that I was in negotiations with Penguin Canada over Race Traitor. After a few weeks of going back and forth and a couple of meetings, I realized that my advance would be abysmal, but I would still be forced to undergo all the personal risks of promoting my book publicly. At the time, the idea frightened me and I chose to walk away from Penguin.
In retrospect, I don’t regret it for a second. Publishing independently allowed me to write the book I really wanted to write — to expose certain incidents that might have been pulled by Penguin’s legal department. By taking all the responsibility myself, I chose to write what really happened, in my own words. And because I have no assets and depend on art grants and freelancing to keep myself afloat, I wasn’t worried about being sued by any of the white supremacists or CSIS agents involved. Incidentally, nobody whose name appears in the book has ever contacted me. Some of them are now living under assumed names and I suspect they’re afraid of their past being revealed.
What’s next in your writing and publishing career?
I have to finish my memoir Remember Your Name, which has been on hold since my mother died ten months ago. It’s an incredibly difficult project to tackle and I’m not strong enough to write about what happened in my childhood while her passing is still so raw in my mind. But this is my most important work and I won’t feel at peace with myself until I complete it, hopefully over the year to come.
In the meanwhile, I’m putting the finishing touches on a self-help guidebook for writers, artists and creatives who wish to grow their social media reach and build up a platform. It’s called The ART of Social Media, and I’ll be sharing the kinds of things that worked for me and others, give tips on what to expect when freelancing, that sort of thing. I expect to release it in November.
Do you feel safe?
For the most part, I do. But it’s a new norm of safety, in the sense that I always take precautions such as keeping my personal social media accounts separate from my public ones. I don’t accept friend requests from people I don’t know, which is common sense. I have a PO Box, so I have a return address for when people order autographed books or pay by cheque. I also don’t generally announce my speaking engagements until very shortly beforehand.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m naturally an introvert and it took me a long time to develop an extroverted persona, but I haven’t had a choice. When you’re in the arts and have a product to sell (i.e. books, CDs, speaking engagements), people want to see as much of you as possible. Privacy is a luxury and the complete opposite of having a “platform”. When I was negotiating with Penguin over the acquisition of my memoir, they fully expected that I would bring my own fans, followers, etc. Their marketing department wasn’t going to do all that for me.
So while I feel that I have little choice but to publicize myself as a writer in order to build my social media platform and connect with new readers — I do it with caution. I’ve posted dozens of photos up on FB and Instagram, of either me alone or travel (scenery) photos, but my closest family members do not appear in ANY of them. In the very few instances where I’ve mentioned my partner, I use either an initial or a fake name.
As for threats, they’re a consistent presence. The internet has enabled people to think they can threaten with anonymous impunity. Nearly every month I receive nasty emails, messages and the occasional offensive tweet. I take screenshots and publicize them as much as I can, in the hopes that the public shaming will make those people back off. I’ve also threatened to contact police. So far, it’s worked.