THOMPSON-OKANAGAN - They call themselves the Soldiers of Odin and say they are here to protect us. But law enforcement agencies, lawyers and others aren’t ready to embrace the group, which has set up chapters across the Thompson-Okanagan.
You’ll recognize them by the patches they wear, which depict a viking with a Canadian flag for a beard. That emblem, minus the Canadian flag, originated in Finland in 2015 when self-proclaimed white supremacist Mika Ranta founded the Soldiers of Odin as a response to an influx of refugees.
The organization has since expanded, with chapters opening up across the world, including here in the Okanagan and Kamloops where members have already held 'prevention walks' and charity efforts.
The Soldiers of Odin in Canada insist they are not racist, anti-refugee or anti-immigrant. They say they are here to act as a presence for crime prevention and work towards making communities safer. But why then would members not join existing crime prevention strategies endorsed by police? More to the point, why adopt a name, a logo and a movement already understood as having racist roots and being anti-Muslim?
SOLDIERS OF ODIN HAVE NOTHING TO HIDE
Okanagan chapter vice-president Tylor Herold describes the organization as a nation-wide charity support structure aimed at helping people in need and deterring crime. Members participate in needle clean-ups, conduct ‘prevention walks’ and hand out care packages to the homeless, among other initiatives, he says.
The core Okanagan chapter is 15 friends who have known each other most of their lives, now joined together by patches and a shared vow to make their communities safer. Herold is well aware of the stigma of racism and bigotry due to ties with Soldiers of Odin in Europe where the group is anti-immigration “due to improper vetting and the allowing of radical militants and Isis to gain entry.” He insists the Canadian focus is on community safety and crime prevention, but they agree with the organization’s underlying principles.
“We have formed an organization that’s main purpose is not only to help citizens through charity but also to protect our people and our culture which is why we’ve kept the same name,” he says, explaining the group has no quarrel with refugees fleeing war-torn countries, but is against 'radical Islam.'
He says the group welcomes immigrants and refugees so long as they “adhere to our charter of rights and freedoms rather than expect us to adapt to theirs.”
Kazimir Nowlin is president of the Soldiers of Odin Thompson chapter based in Kamloops and laughs off the notion that the group is racist or anti-immigrant.
"I have a mixed-ethnicity — I’m East Indian, Irish and Italian," Nowlin says. "There’s no racism in this group. I’ve known the members of B.C., a lot of them for 30-plus years. They're all good people."
Accusations of racism are a soft spot for the group, and it’s clear they are concerned about their image. Herold required some of our questions in writing before being cleared to be interviewed talk to a reporter, and unbeknownst to us, taped a telephone interview and shared it on the Soldiers of Odin Facebook page. Posts on the group’s Facebook pages also remind members not to post anything racist.
However, there is frequently an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant flavour, as seen in certain posts and comments and some of their sources of information.
According to a copy of the Soldiers of Odin Canada bylaws, confirmed as ‘an outdated’ but ‘still accurate’ document, they are officially tied to Soldiers of Odin Finland but notes ‘higher authorities are failing the Canadian citizens.’
“Between the allowing of illegal aliens into this country and giving them the ability to vote and drive, accepting refugees from countries that hate us while Canadians are on the streets, releasing confirmed terrorists back to their organizations to cause more harm against Canada, and demonizing anything that has to do with European culture to try and create racial tensions to turn citizens on one another, we as Soldiers of Odin realize that it is time to take back our streets, provinces, and country,” the bylaws state.
Credit: Scribd/ Soldiers of Odin
“I THINK IT’S IRRATIONAL FOR THEM TO BE CHOOSING A NAME LIKE THAT AND THEN CLAIM THAT THEY’RE NOT RACIST”
Alan Dutton, national director of Canadian Anti-racist Education and Research Society, says he believes these groups wouldn’t use the name if they didn’t have fundamental agreements.
“The founders of the group were racist, were connected to neo-Nazi groups, so I think it’s irrational for them to be choosing a name like that and then claim that they’re not racist,” Dutton says. “If they were thinking they were going to help people they wouldn’t call themselves Soldiers of Odin.”
Dutton doesn’t buy the group’s motives of trying to protect the community, and compares the charity work to the KKK in the U.S. advertising its community efforts.
“Obviously that’s for advertising purposes or fundraising purposes and to promote the organization,” he says. “But to claim that the KKK is protecting Americans by cleaning up the streets is obviously a fraud.”
The group is gaining the same skepticism and distrust from some other community agencies. Barbara Levesque, the executive director of the John Howard Society of the North Okanagan, has had private and public conversations with the Okanagan chapter and is concerned about what she sees. The first red flag, she says, was finding out members do not require criminal record checks — especially concerning for a group offering to escort vulnerable people afraid to walk alone.
“Quite frankly, that’s very disturbing and people in Vernon should be very worried about that," she says. "We don’t know the past or backgrounds of these people.”
“I understand the impulse to want to help. I want to be clear, I think the vast majority of people involved in this group have an inner impulse to help — that they really want to see a safer community. But I think they are naive and misguided, and being led by people far more shrewd than they are,” Levesque says.
She even agrees with part of their approach — that more people out on the streets does deter crime. She just doesn’t support how they are doing it.
“I just question why they have to march around in groups with vests on that are the insignia of an extreme right-wing, white power group in Europe,” she says. “Why, if you want to promote safety… would you emulate and take on the name of an organization that has an extremely questionable foundation in principles, and then deny it? What they’re asking of us is that we set aside all logic in order to accept them as a community safety group.”
Posts on the group’s Facebook page often seek to clarify the organization’s stance on refugees by stating they are against radical Islam and Sharia Law, not Muslims, but that simply exposes a shallow understanding of culture and religion, Levesque says.
“It’s cognitive dissonance,” Levesque says. “Imagine if somebody posted ‘we are not anti-Christian, we’re anti-Christianity…. There’s no logic in it. They say things like ‘Islam is not a race, Islam is a religion.’ It’s not a way that you create a safe community.”
She also wonders why the group would have to remind its own members to not post racist comments on their Facebook page.
"The only reason you would caution members not to post racist things is if you thought they would," she says.
The John Howard Society operates low-income housing complexes and homeless shelters, and Levesque is particularly concerned about the group engaging with members of the street population. A recent video shows the group handing out care packages to homeless people in Vernon. The group is not permitted on any John Howard Society properties, Levesque says.
“When you approach someone at night, it’s pitch black out and you’ve got a gift in your hand, and you also have a camera running, it’s an unethical act. You’ve launched yourself into a public relations campaign and you are using people as props,” she says.
‘TAKING BACK THE STREETS’
Vigilantism in general is an increasing concern among law enforcement officials, with groups such as Creep Catchers attempting to take matters into their own hands. The Soldiers of Odin claim they are not vigilantes, but that, too, is the identity that came with the name and the patches.
The group conducts what they call ‘prevention walks’ which involve a minimum of three members in uniform, walking through the community, Herold says.
When asked what members would do if they encountered a violent situation during one of the walks, Herold says they would intervene and subdue suspects until police arrived — something he’s quick to add is within their legal right.
“But in all honesty, our presence alone would most likely act as a deterrent to defuse the situation,” Herold says.
He says they don’t operate with a “seek-and-destroy-type agenda” but merely keep their eyes and ears out for trouble.
Mark Gervin, a Vancouver-based criminal defence lawyer and law professor at the University of British Columbia, says any law enforcement activities should be left up to trained police officers.
“I think when you have people who are enthusiastically embracing alternative forms of police enforcement, and with no training to direct them on how to operate, and how to operate within the framework of the law, innocent people could be hurt or people who are guilty of a crime could be punished much more severely. Or the people doing the policing might themselves also be hurt,” Gervin says.
He adds there is also a risk of the individuals themselves being charged.
“Untrained people walking around deciding what is a fight and what is not a fight, who is responsible and who isn’t — it seems to me a call to the police and giving a witness description and a statement is a lot more help,” Gervin says. “When you have people who are untrained they can make a lot of mistakes. Those mistakes can conceivably lead to charges.”
He says patrols that focus on certain people or certain areas can also be detrimental.
“When people get so focussed — usually to the exclusion of everything else — it can sometimes result, I think, in the vilification of groups or people who don’t deserve to be,” he says.
According to the Soldiers of Odin, they don’t consider themselves above the law and want to help police “do all the stuff they don’t have time for.” Gervin says there are better ways to help.
“Show up and vote. Get a hold of your Member of Parliament,” Gervin says. “I think the proper way to go about this is for taxpayers and citizens to lobby with their MPs and not take on the law themselves.”
While the Soldiers of Odin have said they wish to meet with the RCMP, there appears to be little appetite from local detachments to work with them.
“The Vernon RCMP will not be meeting with or collaborating with the Soldiers of Odin,” Vernon Supt. Jim McNamara says.
He suggests members of the community who want to assist the police with citizen patrols should contact the Crime Prevention Coordinator, at Vernon’s Community Safety Unit, which manages a group of volunteers who are “well trained, supervised, accountable and go through a rigorous reliability clearance process before being accepted.”
“This ensures the safety of both our volunteers and other members of this community,” McNamara says.
Kamloops RCMP Supt. Brad Mueller says he also has no plans to work with the group, although they are reaching out to them to discuss what their purpose and mandate is.
"We’re certainly not encouraging any vigilante groups to move forward and we don’t plan on working with any of them at this point in time," Mueller says.
— This story was updated at 4:19 p.m. Thursday, March 29, 2018 to remove screenshots from the story that disrupted the layout.
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