Trigger warning: Some readers may find some of the images below disturbing.
On Sunday, December 11 at 2:00 p.m., a “Rally Against Racism” was held outside the Richmond-Brighouse Skytrain Station to protest the distribution of anti-immigrant flyers in the city.
I arrived by Skytrain 15 minutes after the start of the event. As I came down the stairs, I could see approximately 150-200 people gathered on the sidewalk in front of the station. Many people held signs with slogans like “No Hate” and “Immigrants Welcome Here! Richmond is a Racism Free Zone.” A number of people gave speeches in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, and at times the crowd responded by cheering or repeating phrases.
The highlight of the event, however, was not the speeches, but a confrontation involving the Soldiers of Odin. From my vantage point, I could see three or four members of the group. They are easily identifiable by their black biker-style jackets, which sport patches reading “S.O.O.,” and a large back panel with a stylized “Viking”-helmeted man’s face. Nearby were a few anti-fascist activists (also identifiable), who I later learned were members of Vancouver Antifascist Action (Antifa). One S.O.O. member held up a sign reading “Stand and fight against hate!”
The Soldiers of Odin and Antifa were both, as far as I could see, remaining respectful of the speakers and standing quietly. All of this changed when the speaker (whom I could not see) made a point of calling out the S.O.O. She told the crowd that there were “neo-nazis” at the rally and (I’m paraphrasing here) they were not welcome. At this point, many members of the crowd turned around and began yelling at the S.O.O. members, some of whom responded verbally. Given that the whole area is constructed of concrete, it was difficult to tell what was being said, but eventually a chant of “go away” (or something to that effect) led the S.O.O. members to retreat south down No. 3 Road. They were followed by members of the news media.
These men seemed happy to speak to the media and to anyone who wanted to chat. I approached one man, who identified himself, and struck up a conversation. I began by asking what he thought of the speaker referring to him and his group as “neo-nazis.” He quickly responded that they were not racists, and that Antifa always tries to shut them down. He went on to say that they were concerned about people promoting Sharia law. When I pointed out that the rally was not addressing that topic, he said that they were there to “show support” and show that they were against the anti-immigrant posters.
This man was clearly informed about the public perception of his organization, as when I mentioned that the European wing of S.O.O. has links to the extreme right, he countered that the founder of S.O.O. — “Mika” (Mika Ranta) — had unfairly gotten a bad reputation. He was at pains to explain that his S.O.O. chapter is a charitable community organization. In addition to patrolling the streets, they ostensibly have supported families in need, including a family whose house was destroyed by fire. Furthermore, he and another man (who had joined him by this point in the conversation) both noted that members of their families were immigrants and/or visible minorities. We shook hands and parted amicably.
Who are the Soldiers of Odin?
The Soldiers of Odin were founded in the northern Finnish town of Kemi in late 2015. They were created in reaction to an influx of migrants, many arriving via Sweden. According to Reuters, the new organization was mainly attempting “to protect native Finns from immigrants” by organizing street patrols. The influx of refugees had, to their way of thinking, put a strain on local police forces, as they believed that these immigrants increased the rate of criminal activity in the town. In the past year, the Soldiers of Odin have opened chapters across Canada, and many other countries, as Vice Canada reported in April.
The Soldiers’ reputation as a racist organization stems partly from their anti-immigrant raison d’etre, partly from the fact that their founder, Ranta, is an avowed white supremacist, but also from the fact that their social media indicates that many members have extreme-right leanings.
A cursory look at the Facebook pages of members of the Vancouver S.O.O. chapter reveals some disturbing imagery. One member, living in Surrey, posted the following image on his personal Facebook page:
At the moment, the Vancouver S.O.O. seem to be purging certain members from their ranks. For example, another (now former) member of the Vancouver chapter made it clear through his Facebook account that if he isn’t a neo-nazi, he’s ignorantly appropriating neo-nazi symbols, including the “valknot,” explained here by the Anti-Defamation League . Whether the imagery he is using or internal politics within the movement are the reason for his ejection from the organization is unclear.
Several “members” of the Vancouver Facebook group are actually from overseas. One member from Germany shows quite a bit of neo-nazi imagery on his Facebook page, including an image of WWII-era German soldiers with the phrase “Ihr opfer unser auftrag.” This is a lyric used in a song by Rechtsrock (white power) band Hassgesang.
Another photo is of a slogan that reads “Familie ist nicht immer mit wem du dein blut teilst sondern fur wen du bereit bist es zu vergiessen” (“Family is not always with whom you share your blood but for whom you are willing to shed it”); note the stylized “SS” in the picture:
A “member” from Belgrade, Serbia posted this photo:
Are these Facebook members actual members of the Vancouver chapter? In all likelihood, they are not. However, with members and “friends” like these, it’s no wonder that Soliders of Odin finds itself mired in accusations of being a front for white power. If they want to distance themselves from such accusations, they will need to take a hard look at their membership — and be more careful about who they “add.” Better yet, they might want to consider a name change. When I asked the member with whom I spoke if his chapter might consider such a change, he responded that “We could call ourselves the ‘Blue Knights,’ but we’d still be Soldiers of Odin.” Perhaps the question that I should have asked is: “Why did you choose this name in the first place?”
The Soliders of Odin have now inserted themselves in the public discussion about immigration in Richmond. Just as the S.O.O. are ‘vigilant,’ those of us who worry about ethnic relations need to also be vigilant and ensure that groups like this are held to account for their actions and their associations.