Growing up in Montreal, Corey Fleischer's life wasn't all that different from many other young adults in the city. After several years of schooling and work, Fleischer was 27 and feeling directionless.
But an eye-opening experience on the way to a job one day — he power-washed driveways in neighbourhoods across the city — would quite literally stop him in his tracks and change his life forever.
"I happened to stop at a stoplight, and on the concrete near me was a giant red, spray-painted swastika. I thought to myself: 'Here I am in a truck full of utilities and materials to remove that swastika,'" Fleischer recalled to Yahoo Canada.
Fleischer, who is Jewish, said the Nazi-affiliated symbol may as well have had his name written underneath it.
Like witnessing a robbery in slow motion and wondering if he should jump in to help, Fleischer recalled being frozen at the red light. But when the light turned green, he hit the gas and made his way to work.
He continued on to the Montreal suburbs, but he couldn't shake what he just saw.
"I realized I hate what I'm doing and the feeling grew so overpowering that I told the entire crew to go home," Fleischer said. He told the homeowner his equipment broke down. He jumped back in his truck and drove back to the busy Montreal street where he first spotted the swastika hours before.
"I jumped out of my truck, mixed cleaning solution, and I put the full force of water on that piece of hate, slowly seeing it erase. The rush I felt from that was a sense of euphoria I had been searching for my entire life," Fleischer said.
That was the birth place and time of Erasing Hate 14 years ago, Fleischer's now-worldwide movement of activist-minded individuals stepping up to clean up structures bearing hate-motivated graffiti.
In the following days, Fleischer drove around terrible back alleys, rough neighbourhoods, searching for graffiti that was targeting hate towards any minority. He said it was an isolating journey, as no one around him understood where this intense desire was originating from.
Legal grey area around graffiti and hate symbolism in Canada
Though some graffiti can be considered art, the Criminal Code of Canada deems it a crime punishable under charges of mischief, and make no discernment between tagging and hate-symbolism graffiti.
So, the criminal code does not yet penalize someone who sprays a Nazi symbol harsher than someone spray-painting a flower, say.
The pandemic brought a surge of hate-related incidents being reported across Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
In data released by the agency in March 2023, the number of police-reported hate crimes jumped 27 per cent in 2021 after numbers were on a decline three years prior.
The statistics agency reported the pandemic “exacerbated experiences of discrimination,” including hate crimes, and “underscored an increase in discourse” about the issue.
In early 2022, NDP House Leader Peter Julian introduced a private member's bill seeking to consider individuals displaying hate symbolism a criminal offence. MPs issued a call to implement a ban on swastikas and other hate-related symbolism, motivated by the open display of hate symbolism in Ottawa during the the trucker convoy in Ottawa
“Other countries ban Nazi symbols and I think it horrified a lot of Canadians to see the Nazi flag on Parliament Hill," Julian said at the time.
Bill C-229 — which would see individuals displaying hate symbolism serve prison time — was introduced to parliament in February 2023 but has yet to be made law.
Ontario reported a staggering 1,164 police-reported hate incidents in 2020 — more than double that reported anywhere else in Canada, according to Statista.
Taking Erasing Hate global
Today, the Erasing Hate movement that started in the streets of Montreal has gone global.
Fleischer credits social media becoming increasingly mainstream in 2015 for growing his initiative.
While everyone was posting heavily filtered images of their daily life, Fleischer hesitated because he thought people would think he was a weirdo. "I was a single guy and told myself no girl was ever going to talk to me."
Fleischer eventually uploaded his first video of himself removing hate-related graffiti, after which he says his life went from 0 to100.
With no formal way to report hate messages in public besides calling 911, Fleischer says people reached out on social media to tell him about the hate symbols they spotted in their neighbourhoods. The more he uploaded and erased, the more reports would flood his inbox.
I tell people I eat hate for breakfast, lunch and dinnerCorey Fleischer
As word of what Fleischer was doing spread, he says his mission of "removing all the hate in Montreal" spread to "removing all the hate in Canada."
Soon Fleischer was receiving calls from North Africa, Europe and Australia with reports of hate signage he was being asked to remove.
"I just followed my gut and it organically grew into this thing where a month ago, I'm removing swastikas in a forest at the back of an elementary school in Alaska and before I know it, I'm removing anti-Semitic symbols in Poland," Fleischer said.
Soon people with hate-affiliated tattoos on their bodies reached out, and keeping in line with his "I don't know how but I can do it mentality," Fleischer harnessed the power of social media and established a global network of tattoo artists who remove tattoos for free.
How you can be a part of Erasing Hate
Fleischer said due to the staggering number of reports he receives, it is impossible to address all removal requests himself.
"Today, if someone sends me a photo of a swastika on a bus bench in Los Angeles, I will repost it on my social pages and say something like: 'The first person there will get a shout-out on my social pages,'" Fleischer said.
While his focus is still primarily on erasing hate symbols across the globe, Fleischer says he is working to educate people about the impacts hate symbolism carries, and show the public how they themselves can remove hate symbols.
"90 per cent can be erased with stuff under $5 at your local dollar store," Fleischer said.
Fleischer says he feels euphoric looking back on what Erasing Hate has turned into. It's even renewed his hope for humanity.
"Erasing Hate is doing two things: Bringing people of all backgrounds together, and (empowering) people to step up to lend a helping hand to a minority that is being targeted by this hate symbolism," Fleischer said.