Tony McAleer has a word for people who have left violent extremist movements. He calls them "formers".

McAleer is a former himself. In the 1980s, he was deeply involved in the neo-Nazi group White Aryan Resistance and was involved in anti-immigrant activism, Holocaust denial and street violence. In the 1990s, he attracted increasing notoriety through a series of publicity stunts and by running a white supremacist phone line.

And for the past 20 years, he has undergone the long, sometimes painful process of leaving it all behind.

He sees the pathway from "current" to "former" as a difficult and lonely one, laden with snares. It is one that he and his colleagues at Life After Hate - all of whom are former extremists - try their best to help shepherd others along. The group, which is a virtual organization with a network of members throughout North America, collaborates on research into deradicalization and runs a support network for those who, like them, have made the decision to leave violent extremism behind.

"Early on, formers have to spend time in a void where they don't have a social circle. That can feel worse than the dysfunction of the old group, and that's when people go back."

He pauses and musters his customary wry grin. "We try to fill that void. It's almost like a halfway house."

It's one of several moments in conversation where McAleer draws an analogy between the condition of formers and the process of recovery from addiction. And just as in the case of the AA member who will always be an alcoholic, for McAleer, the past must be acknowledged, atoned for, and, if possible, transcended.

But for the "formers", it seems, as for the alcoholic, it can never be forgotten.

The impact of 'toxic shame'

If there's one thing that McAleer has retained in his journey from prominent racist to globe-trotting deradicalizer, it's his charisma. His warm brogue mixes northern England, where he was born, and western Canada, where he grew up and still lives.

He puts some past mistakes down to a "Celtic stubbornness" inherited from his Liverpool-Irish father, and he may have inherited some capacity for smooth talking from that side of the family, too. His engaging stories issue from a broad, expressive face. Parts of his tales are grim, but his sense of humor is unfailing. If anyone could talk you round to something, it's him.

Skinhead days: Tony McAleer in his youth.

Skinhead days: Tony McAleer in his youth. Photograph: Tony McAleer

In a busy coffee shop in downtown Vancouver, he explains how he was drawn into white power movements in the 1980s and how he has spent the past 20 years painstakingly trying to extricate himself from it, as well as make sense of what he did.

Citing research from the University of Maryland, he points out that the most common factor in the backgrounds of those who wind up in violent extremist movements is "emotional trauma". It's a "lousy predictor", he says, because clearly not everyone who experiences trauma becomes violent, but he thinks that it still has explanatory power.

Although there was no violence in his childhood home, he says, an absent father and turmoil between his parents left him "angry and confused". At a Christian Brothers School in Vancouver, teachers perplexed by his combination of disruptive behavior and obvious intelligence decided: "Let's beat the grades into him." In this school and others, he was subjected to bullying from teachers and students.

Such experiences are common among current and former extremists, he says, and it explains a lot.

"Trauma leaves us with a belief system that forms part of our identity. I call it toxic shame. We pick up the belief that we aren't lovable enough, smart enough, that we're powerless and weak. We go out into the world and we live our lives in reaction to that."

Trauma leaves us with a belief system that forms part of our identity. I call it toxic shame

Later, some of these people fall into extremist groups because they offer "a sense of belonging, a sense of camaraderie, meaning and significance". In other words, they get a sense of identity that is "intertwined with the ideology", making each more difficult to dislodge.

Miserable in high school, McAleer begged his parents to send him elsewhere. In 1982 he was packed off to Scarborough, England. He was Catholic with an Irish name at an all-Methodist boarding school, so there was no respite from the bullying. But he did discover the burgeoning skinhead scene, which at that time, at least, was not necessarily racist.

The next summer he returned to Canada and went to his first punk show. In the queue outside he encountered two local skinheads who were sizing up his Doc Martens to steal them. Instead he befriended them, and they became his closest allies over the next decade as he descended deeper into the white power movement.

In their company that summer, he got into his first fight at the age of 16.

"It was electrifying. The adrenaline rush was intoxicating. As skinheads within the punk scene we had notoriety and people were afraid of us. A false sense of power comes with that."

In 1984, he went back to England for a holiday and returned with an armful of Skrewdriver records. The band's openly racist message, which arose in the maelstrom of the UK's Oi scene, influenced him, and he passed that message on to his fellow travelers in Vancouver.

"That's when it started going from being ultra-British stuff - drinking ale and football hooliganism - to something else." Throughout his career in the white power movement, he says that "The music was the main driving force in the recruitment of young people."

"I quickly became the one driving the ideology in my group. It started off as 'Canada first' and immigration reform, and steadily it became more extreme. The more extreme the positions were, the more exciting and titillating it seemed."

'I was a complete narcissist, an attention whore'

Over the next half-decade, he and others in the Aryan Resistance movement went from providing security for anti-immigration meetings and scuffles in punk clubs to forming links with white supremacists elsewhere and carrying out sophisticated media operations.

McAleer attended the first youth congress at the infamous Idaho compound of the Aryan Nations group in 1987. He formed relationships with other Canadian white supremacists such as Wolfgang Droege, who was imprisoned for a plot to launch a coup in Dominica and was shot dead in Toronto in 2005.

He designed some of the first white supremacist websites and wrote an article in 1995 for the racist Resistance Records magazine urging other white supremacists to take advantage of the new medium of the world wide web, where he said they could "debate with anti-racists or just post racialist ideology and information. There are no limits to free speech on the internet, anything goes."

One stunt in particular put him on the map in British Columbia, attracting the attention of mainstream media and anti-racists alike.

In 1993, he allowed people to think that he was bringing the US founder of White Aryan Resistance, Tom Metzger, to speak in Vancouver. Metzger had been bankrupted in 1991 after civil action following the murder of an Ethiopian immigrant in Portland, Oregon, by skinheads associated with his movement. "The border was put on full alert" when they heard Metzger might be visiting just two years later.

The more extreme the positions were, the more exciting and titillating it seemed

Alan Dutton, the director of the Canadian Anti-Racism Education and Research Society, also lives in Vancouver. Back in 1993, he had McAleer in his sights.

When he and other organisers heard about the plans to bring Metzger over, "We organized a demonstration and brought about 3,000 people into downtown Vancouver. Around the same time we also organized demonstrations against a band he managed called Odin's Law."

McAleer's activities were just a part of a broad upsurge at the time, which Dutton compares to the present ascendancy of the "alt-right".

"The far right was really surging and growing rapidly from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s in Canada. This included White Aryan Resistance, the Heritage Front and many branches and chapters of the KKK."

In the end, it turned out that McAleer had been foxing all along. He had never planned to bring Metzger physically to Canada, he says, and only played a video of a Metzger speech followed by a telephone question and answer session.

This kind of nose-thumbing was irresistible to McAleer. "I got off on it. I was a complete narcissist, an attention whore."

In 1994, he was before the Canadian Human Rights Commission over a computerized telephone answering service he ran called Canadian Liberty Net. Callers from all over the world could punch in numbers and be put in touch with local racist organizers. At its peak, it was getting 300 calls a day.

Fading to black

Life After Hate has identified some patterns in the ways in which people detach themselves from violent extremist movements. For McAleer, it was his children who drove a wedge between him and his old life. Then he gradually pulled away in a method they call "fade to black".

When his daughter was born in 1991, he felt a visceral change. "A tingling went from the top of my scalp all the way down my body," he recalls. In 1995, the year his son was born, he also became a single father. And as he derived more attention, acceptance and approval from his new role, he increasingly saw the white power movement for what it was: "completely dysfunctional. Wounded people, alcoholism, violence. I can't think of a single person who experienced joy on a daily basis."

At some point, it occurred to him that his activities limited his capacity to support his children and their social circle. "Why should I be like Don Quixote, jousting at windmills, fighting for a bunch of white people who couldn't give a shit if I lived or died?"

Why should I be like Don Quixote ... fighting for a bunch of white people who couldn't give a shit if I lived or died?

A decade after his run-in with the human rights commission, and his slow drift away from his old milieu, he attended a self-development course related to his work as a financial planner. There he met Dov Baron, a speaker and leadership trainer who McAleer now credits as a mentor. The two bonded over their shared origins in the north of England and their love of Monty Python.

A friend bought him a one-on-one session with Baron, where after some prodding McAleer owned up to his past, and a smiling Baron said, "Tony, you do realise I'm a Jew, right?"

At that stage, Baron says, "It was clear to me as we were talking about it that he's out of the movement, but the movement is not out of him."

"He was full of piss and vinegar. A bright guy, but it was all misdirected because of his own shit, the same as all of us. I told him, that's not who you are. That's what you did, but that's not who you are. I see you." At that point, McAleer broke down and cried.

He went through Baron's leadership and speaking program and began speaking publicly about his experiences.

By 2009, he had connected with the other members of his group, and they began producing Life After Hate as an online journal. In 2011, he and the other members were invited to Dublin to participate in a Google Ideas summit with others who had left violent extremism behind.

"It was surreal. You had guys from the IRA, guys who had been in for murder. Guys from the Ulster Volunteer Force. You had the former president of Colombia and Farc there at the same time. Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, mujahideen, six skinheads, the Bloods, the Crips, MS13."

When the Life After Hate crew talked to people in and around the conference, they discovered that many people had stories similar to their own, irrespective of the details of the organisations they had become involved in.

"Look at the histories of the young men who were arrested for the attacks in Brussels and Paris. They are not scholars of the Qur'an who found Isis through their interpretations. They're street kids. They're troubled youth. The need to be involved in something meaningful comes before the ideology."

After that conference, the Life After Hate network firmed up their mission. They now collaborate on research into hate groups. More importantly, they provide a support network for "about 40" people throughout North America who are in various stages of the journey away from violent extremism.

McAleer's own journey has taken him around the world as a speaker; he and Baron even appeared in New York at an event organised by the US state department and the UN. But his priority now is building bridges closer to home.

In Vancouver, he says, his actions "created fear. There are three communities here that I think were harmed most by what I did. The gay community, the Indo-Canadian community, and the Jewish community."

His own violence often took the form of "gay bashing". Then in 1998, five skinheads kicked to death Nirmal Singh Gill, the caretaker of a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia. McAleer didn't know them well, but he thinks he may have recruited the men who in turn recruited them.

"Can I say that I made no contribution to the events of that night? I can't say that. And that is where this stuff ends. That is the outcome."

He has reached out and spoken to the LGBT and Indian communities in Toronto, but he still hasn't made direct peace with the Jewish community there.

Though he was formerly a "prolific Holocaust-denier", a visit to a Holocaust museum in Florida was a turning point. Rather than "looking for inconsistencies" as he used to, McAleer "allowed myself to feel the sorrow and shame I had". He realised, he says, that "my denial of their pain was a denial of my own pain". From then on, he was rid of his conspiratorial view of the Shoah.

The hardest thing for him and most other formers in getting out, he says, is to "forgive ourselves for what we've done. It sounds self-serving but the more I have compassion and forgiveness for myself, the more I can diminish my capacity to do harm in the world."

To Alan Dutton, this sounds a little too neat. He accepts that McAleer has genuinely reformed, and adds that "I can only applaud the people who are leaving hate groups". But he is forthright in his misgivings about "some of the analysis that is being put forward".

For all the emphasis on childhood trauma and compassion, he says, "Not everyone who has had a difficult childhood turns to hate. There are particular factors involved in that, like cultivation and cult recruitment. They take a particular form. We have to be able to look at these groups and see how they function. A lot of these groups are based on a political motivation: a fear that they won't have the same kind of privileges that they're used to."

But McAleer is convinced that what we need to cure the acrimony of our politics is a "revolution in compassion".

Accordingly, he worries about the way in which contemporary leftists are dealing with the "alt-right" (of who he says "the only thing that's new about them is the label").

He sees "dehumanisation" on both sides, adding that "the prospensity of the left to argue for violence to deal with the right is, I think, dangerous. Especially, like at the Milo event at Berkeley, where we see violence against women."

And then, he adds: "You can't defeat hate with hate."