The friendship

I can’t remember exactly when I met Georgie Fagan, but for some time we organized together for prisoners.

Georgie had been in and out of prison for most of his life, and has years of experience in the prison system. At Prisoner Justice Day a few years ago, he spoke movingly about his time inside, and the struggles he was facing now he was out. He had no ride to the event, and no one to bring him. He had written about his experiences, but there was no one to read it. He spoke over and over again about his young daughter, his efforts to be a strong father to her, his determination to be a role model, and how hard it was to make a change and stick to it.

For most of Halifax, if they know Georgie, it is not the way I know him. Georgie became notorious in the spring as the Vice President of the Northern Guard, a far right white nationalist group. After they were filmed “patrolling” Spring Garden Road, handing out pizzas, Georgie defended the group to the media. And then he disappeared from public view.

Today the Northern Guard were patrolling along Spring Garden road, #Halifax #NovaScotia, in a group of 6. They do this semi-regularily with the goal of recruiting more members. Be careful interacting with these guys. It is run as a vile White Supremacist gang.#nspoli #cdnpoli

— Ⓐtlantic PoliSci🏴🚩 Abolish the Police (@AtlanticPoliSci) April 1, 2019

When the video of the Northern Guard circulated, it was upsetting to see Georgie wearing the jacket of a hate group. Muslim women friends spoke about their fear of going downtown. In our friend circles, we wondered how to protect ourselves if a group like that could walk around in the middle of the day, in the middle of Halifax.

I tried to reconcile this figure of fear with the man I had met. I figured I hadn’t really known him at all. I am never surprised that people can be racist or violent and not show that face to us, but still, it was shocking.

Throughout the summer, protests against the National Citizens Alliance intensified in the city. The federal election was approaching, and in Calgary, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier posed with members of the Northern Guard. Reports in the news revealed white nationalism in the ranks of the Canadian military. There was public concern about the threat of white supremacy. Who were the people joining these groups? Why was membership growing? How could it be stopped?

Image from Global News
Maxime Bernier (white hat) with the Northern Guard. Photo: Global News.

Then this New Year’s Eve, Georgie messaged me an apology. He wanted me to know that he had left the Guard some months ago, that he renounced their hate, and that he was sorry for the harm he had caused. He wanted to make amends to his community.

Since leaving the Northern Guard and speaking out against them, he has faced threats both against himself and his nine-year-old daughter. He knows people will think he is a rat, he told me, but he thought that staying silent was the same as supporting hate, and he did not want to do that. He hopes that by telling his story, and how he was lured into the group, he can prevent other people from making the same mistake.

When I spoke to Georgie, he was cooking his daughter dinner before taking her to sign up for cadets. He said that he wanted her to learn “honesty, dignity, and respect.” He said it was those values driving him to speak out. His story — why he joined, what he found out, and why he left — frames the events of the spring in a different way, and shows how these groups exploit people pushed to the margins of society.

The target

Georgie Fagan’s life is the familiar tragedy of so many of the people forgotten and pushed out of society. He was born in New Brunswick, and grew up in foster homes and group homes around Halifax. From the age of 15, when his mother died, he was on his own, living on the streets and eating out of garbage cans. He bounced in and out of the criminal justice system, serving four federal bids. Whenever he got out, with no supports and nobody to depend on, he ended up back in prison.

Georgie wanted a place to belong. What had drawn him to prison advocacy was the desire to fight for other people. He liked the idea of doing charitable work, and he was struggling in poverty to raise his daughter.

And so, Georgie was the perfect target for the Northern Guard.

The Northern Guard is a splinter group that split from The Soldiers of Odin in 2016. The founders denounced the Finnish leaders as “racist, unorganized, reckless thugs.” In Canada, chapters of the SOO publicly emphasized their community volunteerism, but they also held anti-Muslim protests. The Northern Guard positioned themselves as more reasonable, distancing themselves from the image of skinheads and neo-Nazis while taking a hard line on immigration. It is a form of PR, like the familiar “I’m not racist, but…” construction. Leaning on issues of “free speech,” they positioned themselves to the media as simply part of a political conversation.

Like the Soldiers of Odin, they “patrol” the streets, presenting themselves as protectors of the community. Handing out food, and picking up needles, their presence is intended to convince people that where the government is failing, they can step in. And underneath that is the implication: Why can’t the government look after its own? Who is getting the money instead? Who comes here and takes the resources while people born here starve? It’s a white nationalist message wrapped up in the front of service. And it was this front that drew Georgie in.

The recruitment

How did Georgie get so deep into the Guard? When Georgie was approached, he says that they told him they were a charitable group. Norman English and Nick Gallant had also been members of the Soldiers of Odin, but they assured Georgie that this group was different:

[Norm] explained to me that we want to go to the route of helping the homeless and all this other kind of stuff: feed people on the street and help people, and, you know, take people to court or something like that if they need escorts. And so I was fed all this, and I said, wow. You know what? This is something I’d like to get involved in. I want to help people because I believe that’s my way of giving back.

Georgie says he did know that the Soldiers of Odin were a white supremacist group, but that he was led to believe the Northern Guard was different:

I did a couple of looks, but not a lot. And that’s my fault too. I did see stuff and I said, well, I don’t want to be involved in any white supremacy or anything like that. Because you know what? I’m not racist. I know a lot of people I did time with. I know a lot of people I used to hang with over the years…But they said, no, no. This is why we’re doing it this way. So I didn’t really do anything.

So January, February, we start making sandwiches. We went on the streets of Spring Garden Road and gave out sandwiches and apples. Even my daughter, she was helping to make the sandwiches. And she was so proud of her Dad doing something good for the community because she enjoys that.

Georgie’s story of how he was recruited shows how groups like the Northern Guard don’t always draw people in with white supremacist ideology, but by presenting themselves as performing a service to people in need. This strategy allows them to reach people who wouldn’t consider joining an openly racist group. They offer a sense of belonging and purpose. Then, once you are in the group, they begin to radicalize the members. In Georgie’s case, he says they tried to use his struggles in life to turn him against immigrants:

So when I was confronted to do an interview on the news [after he was filmed handing out pizzas], Nick Gallant told me, stay with the immigration part where we’re not following the right procedures of immigration. Where they’re not taking care of us, they’re taking care of them first. And he kept coming in my face saying, well, you should know Georgie, because you’re on welfare and you gotta fight for everything. But these refugees, they get whatever they want.

He was feeding into my insecurities. They can find a little bit of weakness. I’m not saying that I’m a weak person, but like I said, they caught me on the fact that, helping others. So I was all ecstatic. 

My weakness was I wanted to help people. And once they have you, they start to work on you and hope you see things like, yeah, you’re right. Immigrants do get more. And they push you step by step.

Georgie believed in the work the group was doing on the streets, but he says he became increasingly suspicious. Even though they insisted they were not a racist group, he says the other members were often openly racist:

I was thinking, Georgie, you do a little more research. I was chatting with all the members across Canada, just over a thousand members right across Canada. And when certain things happen, like that Mosque, when that white supremacist [Alexandre Bissonnette] went in there and killed all those people, they were pleased with that.

So there was a red flag for me. I was like, whoa, wait a minute.  

Even though he had his doubts, Georgie would stay with the group for a few more months, and even went on the news to defend them. Whatever he was feeling privately at that point, to people watching the videos, Georgie appeared to be a hard-core supporter. But, he says, that was changing.

The break

In March, 2019, video began circulating online of the Northern Guard “patrolling” Spring Garden Road. Anti-hate groups began identifying the members in videos and online postings, and Georgie’s name became public.

I think the straw that broke the camel’s back more or less was when I went to Domino’s. So I used to work at Domino’s. They have my picture up and I was banned from all Domino’s after this. Because I said, we’re going to feed the homeless. So he gave me a huge discount. I still had to pay something, he didn’t give it for free. 

We took a picture giving the thumbs up, saying thanks for the support. That really started everything at that point. But I didn’t realize what was going on. People were approaching me, giving us the finger, and they were yelling and screaming. Norm went off on somebody, a young guy, And I’m sitting back wondering, okay, this ain’t the place to be. I was videotaping that, and I said to the guy, whoa whoa, stop stop. And he said you’re a threat to the community. And I said, but we’re helping people. 

I walked away and just kept everything in my head. I thought, wait a minute, this is not sounding the way I was told. 

Georgie went on the news and defended the group. At the time, he said:

We need to take care of our own backyard first before we take care of somebody else, and a lot of people agree with that. Freedom of speech does not exist no more; they’ve changed it to hate speech.

Georgie’s comments show him buying into racist ideas. In videos he posted online at the time, he angrily defended the group’s actions. He argued that the government was allowing veterans to starve on the street while putting “foreigners in front of their own people.” Certainly, at that point, he seemed to be all-in.

But privately, he says his own concerns about the group were growing. He began asking questions, and one of the questions he asked was what the leaders were getting out of it all:

He has at least 1200 members. Plus there’s 100 dollars a year dues. He’s collecting 120,000 plus tax free money a year. 

Somebody else said to me, he don’t care about us anyway. He just wants 120,000 tax free dollars, so that’s the greatest scam I ever heard of. I said, you know what? Come to think about it, you’re right. He’s using other people’s feelings, weaknesses, or whatever the case may be to develop his own. 

And then our dues were twenty dollars on top of that to buy sandwiches or do stuff or go places, buy more patches. But not the head. The head leader gets 100 dollars from each member, and right now there’s over 1200 members from Maritimes to BC.

The more he saw and heard, the less Georgie could convince himself he was just part of a community group. And with the blinders off, what he saw was shocking:

The way they solve their problems is through hate and violence. You can see some of the pictures. You can see the videos. So in about June I was like, enough. I gave it my best, I want nothing more to do with this stuff. 

The violence and the threats came after that. Because I knew everything about them. I told them, you’re a bunch of liars. You’re a bunch of white supremacists. I have no respect for you guys. I lost it on one of them, I said, let’s get this done. When my daughter is shaking and crying, then my father’s instinct snapped in. 

Georgie left the Guard in June. He was a member for about six or seven months.

The aftermath

Georgie knows what a lot of people in his community think of him. He’s been able to talk to people around him and explain why he got involved, and why he left, but he knows that most people, if they search the Northern Guard, will see his name.

I was brainwashed. I was coerced into seeing certain things. And I found out the truth and I got my ass out of there. Because you know what? That’s not me. 

He says the public claim that the group is not racist is a lie.

I talked to dozens of people in this province in the Northern Guard and not one of them ever said, this has nothing to do with race. They all said — I don’t want to use the n-word on the phone with you — but they’d say it would be good to have one of them tied up on a tree in the backyard. I was sick of it.  

Georgie reached out to members in the community, including me, to apologize. He says he even called Global News to apologize for the interview he gave when he insisted the group was not racist. He’s not making excuses; he says he knows what people might feel about him now.

He wants to speak out because he says groups like the Northern Guard are recruiting a lot of young men. He feels that people need to know how these groups take advantage of people, the tactics they use to get people to join, and what they really stand for.

The young minded kids in their 20s. They feed on them. They go after them to be members of this club to create hate. They only want to love their own kind, and they teach their children that. 

They have 36 members here in Halifax, and they’re all mostly young. When they asked us to do recruitment, they’d say, go for the younger guys, because they’ll be around longer. No, it has nothing to do with being around longer, it’s because younger people unfortunately are naive, and they can be coached into this.

Because recruiters lie about what the group stands for, Georgie thinks people need to be more aware of what’s really going on. He also makes the point that while groups like the Northern Guard are the most extreme examples of racism, they are able to be successful because of how racism is present in society:

It’s not just these white supremacist groups. It’s a lot of other things. They’re starting with the stop street checks and policing, but we have to go even further. 

We need to open our mouths. If we know something about an organization or something that is bad, we can’t be silent. I think the person that’s being silent, that’s just as wrong as well.

And that’s why I’m not hiding. I don’t hide. What am I hiding for? I know the truth. 

Georgie’s advice for young people being radicalized is to be aware. When he started asking questions, and doing research for himself, he saw the truth. He hopes that other people who are vulnerable to white supremacist messages will learn from his experience:

The only way you get the truth is from someone who’s been there, or a part of it. And I was clearly a part of it, because I was on Global News. And I was told what to say, more or less. I feel bad. I misled the community, but I didn’t really know at that time.

I buried myself and my reputation in the city. There are people who understand what happened and still support me, because they know what I’m doing. I’m trying to defend people from individuals like them. Because it’s 2020. There’s no room for racism and it’s got to stop. That’s not the way to solve problems — this is why we have certain issues in this city. We’re not colours, we’re human beings. And we’re all doing the same thing. We’re all getting jobs. We’re all paying rent. There’s just no room for that crap.

If you know something, if you can prevent hate and violence and racism, you step up the plate and you do it. Because it’s the right thing to do, and the humane thing to do, and because a lot of other people are scared to do it.

Georgie also warns that social neglect creates opportunities for white supremacist groups to prey on people.

Everybody wants to fit in somewhere. We all crave that attention and that love from somewhere. If you’re not getting it from your own family, you’re going to reach out somewhere else, right or wrong. But you gotta know what is right from wrong. 

The lesson

Georgie’s story makes clear how active white supremacist groups are in Halifax, and in Canada. And while we might imagine them as fringe groups, Georgie shows how they are successful recruiting people who want to belong, or want to do good, or who are vulnerable in other ways.

Georgie estimates over 1200 members of the Northern Guard alone across the country. And they are far from the only group. Yet, despite the growing numbers, they were able to walk around in plain daylight for weeks on Spring Garden Road in the city without police interference.

In a country where the RCMP are regularly revealed to be spying on peaceful Indigenous leaders like Cindy Blackstock  — and where they were prepared to use lethal force against Wet’suwet’en land defenders — the question must be asked why groups like the Northern Guard thrive seemingly unmolested. As I reported in September, as Deputy police chief in Hamilton, Halifax police chief Dan Kinsella oversaw a hate crimes unit that devoted their surveillance to anarchists and anti-capitalist organizers, while white supremacist groups exploded in the city.

But more policing isn’t the solution for the circumstances that brought Georgie into the Northern Guard. He has been policed and incarcerated for most of his life. Even if he had been arrested for his activities with the Guard, that would not have addressed the lack of social supports, the poverty, or the revolving cycle of incarceration. All those things made him vulnerable when he was approached.

We are lucky that Georgie asked questions, and did research. We are fortunate that his love for his daughter made him reject violence, and that his relationships with people from other communities led him to reject ideologies about his “own kind.” He’s trying to redress the mistakes that he made. But in other conditions, Georgie could have embraced these ideas, which played upon his struggles and the neglect he faced in society. If we do not care for people in our communities, someone else will find them and exploit them.

And while the Northern Guard and similar white supremacist groups are the most radical expression of racism in this country, they thrive precisely because of the ways their beliefs are normalized, spread, and excused. If Maxime Bernier can be featured on anti-immigration billboards and still be allowed into the federal leader debates, then it is no surprise the Northern Guard advises their members to focus on immigration in public statements while claiming they are not racist. Too many people will denounce the Northern Guard, but then fight for the exact ideology they hold to be shared in our newspapers, at our universities, and in our communities under the guise of “free speech.”

Image from CBC.

It is a myth that only a few easily dismissed, cartoonish fanatics support these ideas in Canada, or that everyone can recognize and reject “real” racism. And when we muddy those waters, we allow white supremacy to thrive, targeting young and vulnerable and alienated people and taking them step by step into radicalization.

People close to me have asked me if it’s a good idea to write this article. Georgie and his daughter have been threatened, and they worry that maybe I’ll be targeted too. But the reality is, I live every day in a city where I am targeted. It is not the Northern Guard who make it hard for me to sustain myself in this city, and I was not safe before I wrote this, not just from extremists, but from the silent, polite, civilized racists. As Georgie says, the truth is the truth, and we can’t stay silent when we know something.

Georgie isn’t stupid. He isn’t weak, and he isn’t evil. He says he didn’t even agree with racist ideas at first. And he was the Vice President of the Northern Guard for six months. This isn’t a story of extremism, it’s a story of the banal, the small tragedies and steps that take people into the clutches of these groups.

Georgie was able to come back. We won’t always be so lucky.

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El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor, community advocate, and activist. Her work focuses on social justice issues such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism, and decolonization.

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