What’s in a name? Alberta’s extremist groups splinter over how they should spread their message

EDMONTON—Even the Wolves of Odin’s sergeant-at-arms admits he has trouble keeping track of all the group’s offshoots.

Whether it’s Soldiers of Odin, Wolves of Odin, Canadian Infidels, or The Clann, there’s a rift occurring among extremist groups in Edmonton.

“I don’t really know what’s going on with all these different clubs, either, especially these last three weeks,” said Lloyd Thomas, a former member of Edmonton’s Soldiers of Odin who is now sergeant-at-arms of Wolves of Odin.

The Wolves of Odin changed its name after the Finland-based Soldiers distanced themselves from the group following a controversy connected to them posing with political candidates in Edmonton.

Even the groups’ online presence is fragmented, with at least two separate Facebook groups for Wolves of Odin and two separate groups for Canadian Infidels. Meanwhile, there’s the CDN Wolfpack Public Page, a different group that is sympathetic to Wolves of Odin, but not Canadian Infidels.

It speaks to how within the groups, there’s no clear consensus on what they stand for. The key is that they’re Canadians, standing together, against something.

“In terms of some of these right-leaning groups ... They want to be associated with certain symbolisms. There’s a very motorcycle club-esque ideology that’s fuelling these groups, like there’s a brotherhood,” says Irfan Chaudhry, a hate crimes researcher and director of MacEwan University’s office of human rights, diversity and equity.

“But I think what ends up happening is they start to fracture to the point where they become non-effective,” he added.

And while they all insist they’re distinct from one another, what unites the groups is a nationalist ideology, a suspicion of refugees and Islam, and, to a lesser extent, a strong opposition to the federal Liberal government.

“Some of us might differ on some ideas, but at the end of the day, we’re all kind of doing the same thing,” Thomas said.

Tyson Hunt, a former prominent member of Soldiers of Odin who is now president of Canadian Infidels and the northern Alberta Clann, has emerged as a divisive figure. Although he willingly left Wolves of Odin — he says they’re too singularly focused on Islam — Thomas says his group wants nothing to do with Hunt because they don’t agree with his approach. 

Hunt was among a group last week whose visit to an Edmonton mosque prompted an investigation from Edmonton police’s hate crimes unit. Hunt insists he’s not Islamophobic or against Muslims, but rather against any religion influencing public policy. While the Clann invites people on its Twitter to “Join the Clann today,” Hunt says Canadian Infidels is not a formal group, but rather a loose affiliation of like-minded individuals.

“When you’re under the Canadian Infidel, that means you’re a Canadian and you don’t think religion should play any part in how our country is run,” Hunt said. “It’s been Christian-Judeo for the last 100 years or whatever, but even Christian-Judeo, Christianity, that shouldn’t be governing over Canada.”

Hunt contends he’s not anti-Islam, but he has posted derogatory remarks about the faith on his Twitter and has posted about selling “anti-Islam toques.” He says when he posts anti-Islam memes or commentary, it’s a “test” to see if people will try to limit his freedom of speech.

Thomas also argues that he has nothing against Muslims, or the religion as a whole, but has posted on Facebook about the government spending billions on “Middle Eastern bullsh--t illegal immigration” and complained about “radical muzzrats.” He claims the post was an attempt to be provocative and to draw attention to a story about a Canadian veteran.

Regardless of their individual views, at the heart of the groups is the idea that the federal government is part of a Trojan horse strategy to import Islam as a political force into Canadian public policy. The Wolfpack page warns of an “influx of radicalized Islamic and Marxist bad actors who wish to subdue our laws to instil sharia laws and Marxist revolutionary ideals on our once-great society,” while the first question when one attempts to join either Wolves of Odin Facebook groups is, “Do you agree that we are in the midst of a foreign invasion?”

Chaudhry says there are several policies that people point to as proof that the federal government has a special sympathy towards Islam, particularly M-103, the Liberals’ motion to condemn Islamophobia, as well as the government’s sponsoring of Syrian refugees.

“These groups felt marginalized and ignored and impacted by government decisions that they feel have been chipping away at their identity,” Chaudhry said. “Those are really easy rallying cries for people to get behind.”

But once they get behind that message, they find there’s disagreement on what they oppose exactly, or how to spread the message. One of the reasons these groups form is a feeling of kinship, a sense of Canadians standing together.

“There’s interest in being involved, but then people don’t’ really understand what they’re getting involved in. Some buy into it, others are saying, ‘This isn’t what I signed up for,’” Chaudhry said. 

Thomas, with Wolves of Odin, says he doesn’t believe sharia law is coming to Canada and he doesn’t believe we’re in the midst of a “foreign invasion.” But he does contend there’s a culture clash between Canadians and immigrants, primarily those from Muslim countries.

“From my opinion, there’s two cultures that are coming together that are different. Every time you take two things that are different, they don’t fit very good, like Lego at first,” he said.

He said he does believe there are “some individuals” who would like to see an Islamic takeover, but they are a minority.

He acknowledges that among many members of his group, there’s a sense they’ve been betrayed by the government.

“I think what’s dividing people is you see a lot of people (who) aren’t working, they’ve run out of EI or can’t get assistance, but then they see the government giving money to these other people,” he said.

Understanding the “other” is a frequent defence when these groups are condemned for engaging in what some perceive to be provocation or intimidation, as was the case when Hunt’s group visited the Al Rashid Mosque in north Edmonton last week.

Hunt argues he was only there to ask questions, because he’s concerned about what Islam says should be done to non-believers.

But Chaudhry says what the groups are really engaging in is what is known as confirmation bias, where they cherry-pick a specific line of Scripture and use it to validate their preconceived notions. He points to a video of Hunt’s group visiting the mosque and repeatedly asking a mosque attendee what the Qur’an says about infidels.

“What those types of narratives help do is fuel their stereotypical understanding of these groups and just really starts to fan the fear,” Chaudhry said.

There’s a type of snowball effect, where certain politicians and media personalities present these false narratives to appeal to their base. The base then sees that as legitimization of those views. These groups then put those ideas online, which encourages more people to embrace them.

“These folks that are galvanizing with these conversations online, they are self-radicalizing,” Chaudhry said.

“They’re utilizing language and terminology that reaffirms that bias … And these groups are trying to replicate that in a way that can be very damaging, to be honest.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter covering inner-city issues, affordable housing and reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh