He has a wonderful wife, three dogs and a marketing consulting gig. He loves sports and live music, especially if U2 or Lady Gaga are headlining. He plays bridge, though not nearly as much as he would like.
His life is the picture of ordinary; the man is anything but.
Old habits hint at a secret past. In large crowds, he still scans for surveillance vantage points. He makes sure his home address never appears on his mail or driver’s licence.
He will give you a name, but it won’t be his real one — that would be Grant Bristow, an identity he hasn’t used in 23 years.
In 1994, Bristow disappeared from his Mississauga home after an explosive story in the Toronto Sununmasked him as a CSIS spy who had infiltrated the Heritage Front.
At the time, the Heritage Front was Canada’s most influential white supremacist organization. Bristow was its co-founder.
By the time the story hit newsstands, Bristow — along with his then wife and stepson — had fled to a safe house, fearing retaliation from the white supremacists he’d betrayed. A media frenzy ensued.
Two decades later, one of the controversy’s central mysteries — who is Grant Bristow? — remains a question with many answers.
“He’s a mercenary. He’ll say anything if the price is right,” says one of the white supremacists Bristow spied on.
“He wanted to be heroic and he was,” says a Jewish man who was once targeted by the Heritage Front.
“He’s a master manipulator,” according to the journalist who exposed Bristow. “When someone like that is acting on behalf of the state, we need to manage him properly — and they didn’t.”
For its part, the civilian watchdog tasked with overseeing Canada’s intelligence agency launched an investigation into the scandal-plagued undercover operation.
In its 220-page report, the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) concluded that Bristow “tested the limits” of what was acceptable — and that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service failed at times to properly manage its source — but in the balance, he and his handler “discharged their duties in a competent and responsible manner.”
“(They) believed that they were doing valuable work helping to protect Canadian society from a cancer growing within,” read the report issued Dec. 9, 1994. “They deserve our thanks.”
Many critics of the CSIS operation consider the SIRC report a whitewash, written by a government-appointed watchdog of a government agency.
But it is the closest Canadians will ever get to an official version of what truly happened. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is also the narrative Bristow agrees with most.
In his first extended interview since 2004, Bristow revisited his six-year sojourn in the hate-filled inner circles of white supremacy and the clandestine world of intelligence gathering, and warned that he sees signs of a dangerous resurgence in white supremacist activity.
He also offered his own version of who Grant Bristow really is.
Nothing about Bristow’s childhood suggested he was headed for a future in spycraft or white supremacy.
Bristow says he was born in Winnipeg in 1958, the last of three children of a banker and civilian military employee. When he was 11, his parents divorced and he moved to Halifax with his mother before settling in Toronto in 1971.
Bristow describes his teenage self as an “unremarkable” C student, no more enthralled with James Bond than the next kid. One of his ambitions was to become an accountant.
That ambition never really came to pass. Soon after he obtained his accounting certification, an unexpected opportunity — one he declines to explain — veered him toward the considerably sexier world of private investigations.
Bristow has been described as a skilled investigator and expert manipulator. He also has another convenient talent. “I’m immune to boredom,” Bristow says. “You have to have patience. It’s never a short game.”
In early 1986, Bristow was suddenly sucked into the margins of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle — and spat right back out onto CSIS’s doorstep.
Bristow and his colleague were contacted by a South African diplomat, who wanted to meet at the swank Sutton Place Hotel to discuss a potential security job for the country’s Canadian consulate.
Bristow vividly remembers meeting a “perfect GQ model” look-alike. “He was right out of central casting,” Bristow recalls. “The perfect haircut. The perfectly tailored Brooks Brothers suit.”
The meeting unfolded normally, until the diplomat casually dropped a bomb: gee, it sure would be nice if the South African government could identify these pesky Canadian agitators.
Bristow was shocked. As he saw it, a foreign government was effectively asking him to spy on Canadians exercising their democratic right to protest.
He promised to look into it but called a friend instead, asking him for advice. The friend connected him with a CSIS officer.
Just like that, Bristow entered the rarefied doors of Canada’s national security apparatus. Bristow can’t divulge what happened next but according to the SIRC report, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs expelled a South African diplomat as “persona non grata” on Aug. 20, 1986, and refused entry to a second.
His next assignment was less successful. According to the SIRC report, Bristow was redirected to a new target after he revealed he had an acquaintance who worked with a far-right extremist. Bristow indicated “he would be willing to infiltrate” the far right on behalf of CSIS.
According to SIRC, the intelligence agency found Bristow to be “somewhat overzealous,” twice violating confidentiality by telling other people about his CSIS association. They told him they no longer needed his help.
But Bristow came calling again the following year. He says he reached out to CSIS after bumping into an acquaintance at a Beaches coffee shop. The pair was approached by a third man, whom Bristow didn’t recognize.
“Boom, this next character shows up,” he says. “He sits down, starts telling us about how he gave evidence at a sedition trial in the United States.”
Bristow later learned he was Max French, a white supremacist. The sedition trial in question involved 13 neo-Nazis accused of conspiring to kill federal officials and overthrow the U.S. government.
At this point, CSIS had growing concerns with far-right extremists and Bristow was “best equipped to keep us abreast of developments,” according to the SIRC report.
Bristow says he was asked if he could fit in with some white supremacists and have a “look-see.”
“That look-see turned into something bigger,” Bristow says. “I never imagined it would become … this.”
What “this” eventually turned into was a targeting investigation called “Operation Governor.”
But first, a new, purportedly racist Grant Bristow had to be created. This racist Bristow told people he was an orphan — no family, no girlfriend — who lived in a High Park apartment, Bristow’s “operational” home.
Bristow knew little about the neo-Nazi movement and its players. So his first move was to call a guy who knew a guy who knew Don Andrews, leader of the racist Nationalist Party who was jailed in 1985 for hate crimes.
Bristow scored an invitation to Andrews’ east-end home, where he held regular Nationalist Party meetings. To hear Bristow describe these weekend gatherings, they had an almost churchlike vibe; an impassioned Andrews would sermonize, while his followers — whom Bristow called “Androids” — stifled yawns.
Except the gospel Andrews preached was Aryan racial unity. And the congregants, according to Bristow, were a mix of middle-aged racists and eye-rolling skinheads who “would have preferred that there was loud music and fewer old people.”
Sitting in Andrews’ kitchen, Bristow saw an authoritarian cultlike figure. He also saw that his credibility was waning. “One of these guys used to say to me, on a somewhat regular basis, ‘There’s got to be more to it than this.’”
That something more arrived in April 1989, when a man named Wolfgang Droege stepped off a plane.
From a neo-Nazi perspective, Droege had serious bona fides. Known as “Wolfie” to friends, the stocky ex-convict was deported from the U.S. after serving four years in prison for drugs and weapons offences. He was previously jailed for conspiring to violently invade the Caribbean island of Dominica and establish a racist haven.
Droege was affiliated with neo-Nazi terror groups and was friends with David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The German-born Droege also grew up idolizing Nazis.
“At the age of 8, he resolved that he, too — like his father and like his grandfather — would grow to be a Nazi,” Warren Kinsella wrote in Web of Hate, his book on Canada’s extreme far right.
“In time he would get his wish, and become perhaps the most powerful neo-Nazi leader Canada has known in the postwar years.”
Bristow sized Droege up as someone with dangerous potential and a growing distaste for Andrews’ leadership.
He also noticed that like his mentor, David Duke, Droege was a “plainclothes racist,” a white supremacist who understood the necessity of mainstream appeal.
“With Droege, presentation was everything. We were ‘racialists,’ not ‘racists,’” Bristow says. “You’ve got to look like the average guy on the street to have credibility.”
Bristow says the “magic moment” that cemented their friendship occurred, of all places, on an airplane coming home from Libya.
In 1989, Moammar Gadhafi’s revolutionary government was planning a 20th anniversary celebration, culminating with a parade at Tripoli Stadium.
But as a pariah state, it clearly struggled with the guest list; an invitation was cordially extended to Andrews’ racist Nationalist Party. “They needed some white faces in the audience,” Andrews said.
Andrews sent 17 party members on the trip, including Bristow. On Aug. 26, 1989, a ragtag group of excited white supremacists packed their sunscreen and set off on an improbable African adventure.
There were snags from the start but the real trouble came after they had already left Libya.
On his return flight, Droege suddenly realized the plane was stopping over in Chicago — and his prison release conditions barred him from re-entering the United States. Upon touching down, the entire group was detained and strip-searched and Droege was arrested.
Bristow stayed behind in Chicago to help Droege with his legal counsel and bail, which was paid using $1,000 given to the group by the Libyans. After 48 hours, Droege was released and dumped at the Canadian border.
The ordeal was a turning point for their relationship, “solidifying that trust and camaraderie,” Bristow says. “At one point, Droege said to me, ‘If you think you need to leave, you can leave.’ I said, ‘I’m with you.’”
It was also a crossroads for Toronto’s white supremacist scene. Angered by the Libyan episode, Droege broke off from the Nationalist Party and formed a new group. He called it the Heritage Front.
In the late ’80s, there were some 130 far right groups across Canada. The Heritage Front aspired to unite them all.
Droege had outlandish ambitions, like buying land in Peterborough and taking over the town council to create racist bylaws.
But broadly speaking, the Heritage Front had two wings, according to the SIRC report — one for political propaganda and a skinhead “commando unit.”
“Droege formed an organization that had far more intensity, and far more ability to wreak havoc than any organization prior to that time,” says Bernie Farber, who was then a senior official with the Canadian Jewish Congress.
The Heritage Front’s inner circle, or “brethren,” comprised the group’s founding members who paid the $350 in startup fees: Droege, two other Nationalist Party defectors, and Bristow.
Bristow’s role as a founding member drew considerable outrage when it first emerged that he was a CSIS mole the whole time. Would the Heritage Front have existed if not for Bristow and his government backers?
The SIRC investigators ultimately concluded yes. In his interviews with SIRC, Droege said he had already had the idea for the Heritage Front for a number of years. “I felt eventually it would happen, because I totally disagreed with Mr. Andrews’ positions or his views,” Droege said under oath.
After the Heritage Front formed, Droege was designated a “level 2” target and Operation Governor commenced. Droege, CSIS believed, had the potential to become the “leading Aryan movement personality in Canada.”
“If this scenario were to materialize, (CSIS) would be fortunate to have a source in on the ground floor,” SIRC wrote in its report.
In just a few years, the Heritage Front grew to become Canada’s most prominent white supremacist organization, linked to violent American neo-Nazis and amassing a collective rap sheet with assault, robbery and other criminal charges.
This period in Bristow’s life was marked by two close relationships. The first, the phoney one, was with Droege, who counted Bristow as not only his right-hand man but also a friend, the kind of pal he called on Christmas Day when he wanted to flee an annoying family gathering.
Bristow had much less time for his other relationship, though he considered it the more important one. About a year after Operation Governor began, he fell in love with his first wife, a colleague from work.
It’s hard to imagine how Bristow found time to date. At this stage, he was working 18- to 19-hour days, toggling between an unpredictable day job and an even more unpredictable gig as an on-call white supremacist — all while having near-daily communications with his CSIS handler.
But the relationship endured, even after his girlfriend — whose stepfather was Jewish — discovered Bristow’s white supremacist affiliations from a newspaper article. (At this juncture, Bristow says, she was brought into the loop).
Bristow even got married in a 150-guest wedding, all while keeping his new wife and stepson a secret from his Heritage Front associates.
His engagement was nearly derailed, however. On the same day he planned to propose, Bristow wound up getting ensnared in the police takedown of an American white supremacist.
But even the sheer insanity of that ordeal didn’t convince Bristow to hand in his CSIS resignation papers. He found ways to cope.
“I put on a CD in my car, probably Phil Collins, and sang along with my own words to the song,” Bristow says. “Another s----- day in paradise.”
At its peak, the Heritage Front was drawing headlines for its racist rallies, high school recruitments and a hate-mongering “Equal rights for whites” telephone hotline, which became the subject of many battles with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.
Anti-racism activists also mobilized to confront the Heritage Front. Anti-Racist Action, a motley group of students, activists, anarchists and street kids, wanted to make it “unsafe to be a fascist” and embraced direct action, like trashing a Heritage Front member’s house.
Bloody skirmishes between the opposing sides broke out on city streets, including a bats-and-bottles street brawl outside Sneaky Dee’s on College St. and a riot in Ottawa, after some 500 anti-racists confronted skinheads attending a neo-Nazi concert.
Bristow insists he never participated in any fighting and the SIRC report said he worked to divert or avoid violence wherever possible. He also found release valves for himself; at skinhead rallies, he sometimes jokingly yelled “white powder!” instead of “white power!”
According to SIRC investigators, Bristow’s undercover work yielded intelligence that resulted in 80 threat assessments, hundreds of reports, deportations of at least five foreign white supremacists, and the “weakening of some racist efforts against Jewish groups, anti-racists, and minority groups.”
Farber also credits Bristow with saving his life. At one point, a small group of radicalized Heritage Front members planned on storming the Canadian Jewish Congress headquarters to “take out some people.” Farber was at the top of their hit list.
Members of the group were arrested for robbing a bank and doughnut shop before they could strike. There are competing views on whether Bristow helped in preventing an attack, but Farber believes that he did.
“I honestly believe, in my heart of hearts, that he saved my life,” Farber says. “Not just because he tells me, but because I got that from independent police sources.”
Former Toronto Sun reporter Bill Dunphy, who spent four years covering the Heritage Front, is skeptical of Bristow’s contribution to national security and feels strongly that the spy caused more harm than good.
“I believe Bristow wildly overinflated that situation, made (the Heritage Front) appear more dangerous than they were, and then actually helped them to become dangerous enough to justify what he and the government was doing,” he says.
Dunphy points to the so-called “It campaign” as an example. The harassment campaign targeted mostly anti-racist activists, phoning them at home and at work until they gave up the name and number of a new person to target.
According to an affidavit by ex-Heritage Front member Elisse Hategan, who has renounced her racist past, the campaign’s goal was to make people’s “life miserable” by calling them constantly, getting them fired and making them fear their “own shadow.”
“Several of them were terrified,” says Dunphy, who has interviewed many of the campaign’s targets. “One young, single mother moved out of the province because they were so scared. This was not a funny ‘haha’ telephone tag game and it came from Bristow. He managed and promoted it.”
Bristow says he accepts responsibility for the lines he crossed, but remains adamant that he needed to demonstrate a willingness to participate in Heritage Front activities, lest he lose credibility with the movement. He says he tried to steer the group away from violence or criminal activity, and he says things like the “It campaign” were part of that effort.
“I had some guiding principles and one of them was I didn’t want to see the loss of human life on my watch,” he says.
For Bristow, one of his lowest moments came in Munich, where he travelled with Droege in 1991 to attend a neo-Nazi conference hosted by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.
In Germany, Droege suggested a visit to Dachau, the Nazis’ first concentration camp, where at least 28,000 died.
Droege ranted the whole time, comparing Dachau to an amusement park and berating a group of Jewish schoolchildren. “Dachau was one of those moments where (I felt), ‘I don’t know how much more of this I can do,’” Bristow said.
The last of those moments didn’t come until 1994, when Bristow finally walked away. The Heritage Front was imploding. Droege’s energies were waning. Bristow also feared he would be called upon to fill a leadership role if Droege were convicted of ongoing criminal charges.
“I felt, my job is done,” Bristow said.
He told an emotional Droege that he was leaving the Heritage Front for a job on the East Coast. He said the exit story was purposely chosen to “leave the door open,” in case CSIS needed him to reinfiltrate at a later date.
But only weeks would pass before that door slammed shut forever — and Bristow’s secret was exposed not just to the Heritage Front, but to the entire city in the pages of the Sun.
“Fed mole lit racist fuse,” read the front-page headline. In his article, which he investigated for nine months, Dunphy wrote that Bristow “played a key role in creating the monster he was to monitor and goading it into a dangerous rage,” a view he still stands by.
Bristow felt misunderstood. “I was speechless,” he says. “I’d been made out to be public enemy No. 1.”
Soon after Dunphy’s exposé, Bristow and his family moved out west to forge a new life and identity.
But he couldn’t escape the media maelstrom. SIRC launched an investigation to probe the operation and journalists clamoured to find Bristow, including Toronto Star reporter Dale Brazao, who tracked him down in 1995.
Bristow refused to be interviewed, but the Star published a story with pictures of his house and wife — something he says he still hasn’t forgiven and blames for ruining his first marriage.
Meanwhile, a shell-shocked Droege went into damage control. SIRC investigators learned he and the notorious American white supremacist Tom Metzger started discussing how they would deal with “that traitor,” even co-ordinating to plant false stories about Bristow in the media.
The SIRC report, which relied on reams of CSIS documents and more than 120 interviews, failed to assuage the operation’s most vocal critics. Dunphy believes that SIRC picked and chose information to present the CSIS operation in the best light possible. “The SIRC report did what the government needed it to do,” he says.
As for Bristow, Dunphy considers him a nice guy who was well intentioned. But he also feels he made serious and harmful errors in judgment and has never been properly held to account.
“My hat’s off to him, because it is a difficult and necessary job,” he says. “I just don’t think he did it well.”
Farber takes a different view. He met Bristow in 2004 and the two men have stayed in touch ever since. Farber now considers Bristow a friend and the ex-spy made sure to phone him when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009. (Bristow’s cancer is now in remission).
“As a person who’s involved with human rights, I went through a lot of inner struggles around it,” Farber admits. “I concluded that he was actually a man who wanted to do something real good for his country.”
Twenty-three years after walking away from his double life, Bristow is happily remarried and enjoys being a grandfather. He’s produced a few movies and television shows and is frequently in and out of the hospital for ongoing health issues.
But glimmers of the old Grant Bristow still resurface. In a bizarre 2010 episode, he was caught impersonating a journalist to try to ferret out information about a local political issue.
Bristow also keeps a distant watch over the extreme right, partly because he still worries a neo-Nazi could show up on his doorstep. According to Bristow, Droege appeared outside his new home in 1995 after the Star’s story was published. (The white supremacist died in 2005 after a drug addict shot and killed him in the hallway of his Scarborough apartment).
Bristow says he does see signs today that remind him of the late ’80s, when organized white supremacy was on the rise: Hate crimes in the news. Nationalist and anti-immigration sentiment. Ideologies like the so-called “alt-right,” which vilifies multiculturalism and “political correctness” for undermining the white identity.
“When you see things like that, you say, ‘Boy, I’ve seen this before,’” Bristow says.
The difference today, he adds, is that groups like the Heritage Front no longer rely on flyers, print magazines and mainstream coverage to spread their poisonous ideas.
Hate in 2017 can spread faster and farther on the Internet, where white supremacists from Canada and beyond can now meet and scheme — and for better or for worse, depending on whom you ask, a Grant Bristow version 2.0 will probably be watching them there.
Author: Jennifer Yang