At only 16 years old, Elisa Hategan felt alone and angry.

It was 1991, and she was living with her mother in Toronto after moving to Canada from Communist Romania.

“I had dropped out of high school. I came from an abusive family. I came from the foster care system,” Hategan shared with CTV’s Your Morning on Monday. “I was really angry. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have a sense of belonging and felt alienated.”

In search of a purpose for her life, Hategan said she discovered the infamous Canadian white supremacist, neo-Nazi group Heritage Front while she was watching a television program about the group. She reached out to the organization and she was quickly recruited and groomed to be the poster child for their rebranded image that was supposed to appeal to the mainstream.

“I didn’t realize I was a commodity for them until later on. They saw that I was 16 and that I was a girl and I had an innocent and innocuous face,” she said.

It took two years before Hategan managed to escape the group. In the years following her departure, Hategan even testified against the leaders and helped shut them down.

In light of the recent violent race-fuelled rallies in Virginia, Hategan, now in her early forties, is speaking out about her personal experience joining a white supremacist group and why she decided to leave.

“I joined because I wanted to feel proud of myself because I had nothing and no purpose in my life,” Hategan explained. “They quickly made me feel good about blaming others for whatever problems I had.”

Hategan said she started to notice the Heritage Front’s rhetoric change during her first year as a member. The group encouraged violence and directed their members to target anti-hate protestors.

One of those anti-racist activists was a lesbian who Hategan was assigned to harass.

“I was just coming to terms with being gay myself,” Hategan recalled. “I started to identify with the people they were attacking.”

It was a turning point for the impressionable young woman.

With the help of anti-racist activists, including the one she was supposed to harass, Hategan left Heritage Front when she was 18 years old, but not before she collected information about the group’s illegal activities. She later testified against the organization’s founder and other leaders, which resulted in prison time for them and the eventual disbandment of the group in the mid-1990s.

Recognizing the signs

Hategan hopes that her story will serve as a cautionary tale to anyone considering joining a racist organization. She said it’s important for family and friends to pay attention to the habits of anyone who may be susceptible to racist ideology.

“You have to be careful that they’re not isolating themselves and going online because a lot of the hate recruitment is happening online,” Hategan said.

From her own experience, Hategan said just talking to would-be white supremacists can have an impact on changing their way of thinking.

“I think it’s important to reach out and educate and inform them because of a lot of the times they just congregate with other people who hate,” she said.