VANCOUVER—The anti-immigrant Soldiers of Odin was used as “security” by a group opposing a homeless camp in Nanaimo on Sunday, drawing words of warning from an anti-racism educator who says the far-right organization is trying to legitimize itself in the mainstream.
Alan Dutton, director of the Canadian Anti-racism Education and Research Society, said becoming involved in contentious local issues is a trademark move designed to make extremist groups appear more palatable in the eyes of average citizens.
“This is exactly the kind of strategy that the far right has been adopting for many years,” Dutton said in an interview. “Why would you adopt the name of a fascist organization if your intention is simply to help get social housing for the poor and clean up the streets?”
The Sunday confrontation, which ended up being non-violent, pitted roughly 60 anti-homeless camp activists against nearly 150 supporters of Discontent City — a tent city formed to protest Nanaimo city council’s lack of action on developing supports for the city’s exploding homeless population.
A spokesperson for Action Against Discontent City (AADC), the citizens’ group that organized the rally against the homeless camp, said the Soldiers of Odin (SOO) was brought in to protect members of his group from threats of violence, acknowledging they were also there to intimidate.
“I can see why people might be freaked out,” said the spokesperson, who declined to provide his name, citing ongoing threats to his personal safety from supporters of Discontent City. “Yeah, they are big guys, but that was the whole point. Do I want my security to not look intimidating?”
He added that the SOO members he’d spoken with told him they’d cut ties with the group’s Finnish parent organization — founded by neo-Nazi Mika Ranta in 2015 — and Ranta’s racist, anti-immigrant and violent ideologies. The Soldiers of Odin’s Vancouver Island chapter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The spokesperson said he had not heard of the SOO until he was approached by the group with an offer to act as security for his organization. The SOO said it was aware that the AADC had been the target of threats because of its opposition to Discontent City, he added.
“I was thrilled,” he said, citing frustration with the Vancouver Island RCMP for failing to take his reports of threats of violence seriously.
“I more than happily accepted their help because not one person had (offered to help) at this point. They shared my group’s motive: peaceful protest, non-violent. This was the most important thing to myself and my group. And it didn’t matter beyond that as long as their intentions are good.”
The SOO’s ties to a neo-Nazi founder with extremist ideologies did not ring true to him, the spokesperson said, as the members he’d met seemed personable and had the same concern as the AADC: that the homeless camp is a public safety issue.
Discontent City organizer Amber McGrath, however, said members and allies of the homeless camp have faced threats of violence and persecution as well.
The Vancouver Island RCMP did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the claims of either Discontent City or the AADC.
McGrath said the whole point of establishing a tent city in downtown Nanaimo was to protest the city’s failure to find any kind of solution for its increasingly desperate homeless situation. Many Nanaimo residents, she said, would prefer to simply ignore the problem — and that attitude appears to have reached city hall.
“A human being has a right to be somewhere,” she said in an interview. “Everyone deserves a place to be.”
Nanaimo’s homeless count in May identified 325 homeless individuals in the city — nearly double the 174 counted in 2016. Meanwhile, a $7-million grant for supportive housing was withdrawn by the provincial government in March after Nanaimo’s city council failed to agree upon a site for the development of the future housing services.
McGrath said the tent city is a result of city council’s inability to take action on behalf of its most vulnerable residents. The SOO, she said, was brought in by people who mistakenly direct their ire at the homeless population, rather than at the civic leaders who have left them in the lurch.
It seemed that the rally was intended to serve notice to Discontent City residents and its allies to leave or face the consequences, she said.
McGrath said she’s witnessed bottles being thrown at the roughly 200 tent city residents from the rooftop parking lot across the street on a number of occasions since the camp was first established in May.
Fortunately, she said, supporters of Discontent City rallied to protect the encampment, and eventually the AADC supporters (including members of the SOO) disbanded and went home.
The AADC spokesperson said both sides were well behaved during the whole encounter. Members of the anti-fascist group Antifa — who attended the rally in support of Discontent City — were actually shaking hands with SOO members by the end of it, he said.
The spokesperson said the SOO has been given a bad rap, and that its members, like the homeless in the camp, deserve a second chance to prove they’ve changed their ways.
“Above all (the Soldiers of Odin) are Canadians, they are a part of Canada with Canadian values,” he said. “They want to protect the community. And you know what? We can work with that.”
But anti-racism educator Dutton said this is a hallmark tactic used by extremist groups to build local support.
The Ku Klux Klan, he pointed out, has taken to adopting portions of highways in the United States as part of a public relations campaign to obscure its own history of racism and violence.
In the case of Discontent City, he said, the SOO is exploiting a hot-button issue to link arms with average citizens in a bid to gain a foothold in the mainstream political conversation.
Increasingly tough economic conditions that have led to a housing crisis, and a rise in homelessness and drug addiction are exacerbating class divisions and forcing average people into two opposing camps, Dutton said — a situation made worse by a daily dose of protectionism from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Unfortunately, he said, it appears the SOO is succeeding in the current divisive climate.
“The Soldiers of Odin actually accomplished their purpose,” he said. “They got the attention, and they diverted the attention from a legitimate issue.”
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter