Rally Against Racism

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.

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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!”

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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.  

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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:

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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.

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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:

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A “member” from Belgrade, Serbia posted this photo:

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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.

Stay tuned.  

Racism in the News

Greater Vancouver has once again made national news because of its ethnic tensions. The Richmond News initially reported on xenophobic flyers, which were placed in mailboxes in Steveston on November 17th. This story was quickly picked up by CBC News, the Huffington Post Canada, and other national news outlets. A week and a half later, more flyers were left in mailboxes in the city; this time, Immigration Watch Canada claimed responsibility.   

These incidents in Richmond appear to be part of a wave of literature targeting ethnic and racial minorities in Edmonton, Toronto, and Montreal. Some of the flyers in Richmond, Edmonton, and Toronto explicitly refer readers to “alt-right” websites. Though it is unlikely that the distribution of this literature has been coordinated, it does follow on a string of racist and xenophobic incidents in the United States and Canada in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President. Trump’s victory has clearly emboldened the alt-right, with even Canadian members of the movement feeling that his victory signals a tide-change in this country. As the Canadian alt-right mouthpiece, the Council of European Canadians, put it: “We can now practice a more direct form of politics…”

Given that there has been a print media and social media circus surrounding the American election, it begs a question: Are these incidents in Richmond indicative of a larger problem, or are they anomalous? Are we, perhaps, more attuned to such incidents at the moment because of the media frenzy?

By way of explanation, let me share a personal anecdote. Last March, the City of Richmond held a forum on foreign-language signage at the UBC Boathouse on River Road. It was an extremely well-attended event. Although I had reserved a seat online, when I arrived the organizers had no record of my reservation. As I was waiting to get in (which I eventually did), a man handed me a flyer that looked like this:

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While the language on this flyer is arguably not as inflammatory as that of the flyers that were distributed this November, the message is similar: immigrants are not wanted, and they are ruining our country. However, the local media did not report on this flyer at the time. Did they not report on the flyer because it was uninteresting? Were they expecting Immigration Watch Canada or similar groups to hand out flyers (and therefore it was not deemed newsworthy)? Did they simply miss it entirely? (Journalists are humans too!)  More than likely, the journalists at the forum were a lot more concerned with what was going on inside the event than what somebody was handing out outside of it. But it is interesting that what was apparently not newsworthy at the time is now national news.   

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been wondering what the landscape of racism in the news looks like in Richmond and Greater Vancouver. What follows is a preliminary report.

Data & Analysis

Note on methodology: Using online databases (mainly EBSCOhost, Google News, and newspaper databases), I have compiled lists of racist and/or xenophobic incidents reported in print news in Greater Vancouver for the past ten years (2006-2016). In most (but not all) cases I was able to verify that these events took place by looking at more than one news source. The data for Greater Vancouver includes Richmond, as well as Vancouver, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Surrey, Delta, and Langley.  

Richmond, BC

Year Incidents
2016 2
2015 4
2014 2
2013 2
2011 2
2010 2
2009 1
2007 1
2006 3

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The findings for Richmond are, for those of us who live here, not all that unexpected. Overtly racist incidents that are reported in the local news are few and far between. However, anecdotal evidence — or what we might call “collective memory” — would suggest that racism (by all groups and individuals) is much more widespread. Some incidents stay under the radar because they are simply not reported in the press. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre and B’nai Brith Canada, for example, publish statistics about antisemitic incidents that are reported to them, but some never make it into the news. For example, in 2014 I stumbled across a swastika that had been painted on public infrastructure at Garry Point Park in Steveston.   

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I reported the incident to B’nai Brith (or the Anti-Defamation League — I can’t remember), but the incident was never shared with the press, as far as I know. I made the assumption at the time that it had either been reported to the local media or would be reported. In other words, news reports are far from the whole picture.  

Vancouver, BC

The data for Greater Vancouver is much more disturbing. As we can see, there have been 29 incidents in the past year, 20 more than the previous year.

Year Incidents
2016 29
2015 9
2014 6
2013 8
2012 4
2011 7
2010 2
2009 3
2007 1
2006 3

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I think there are a number of reasons why this number may be higher than in previous years. In no particular order, here are some possible factors:

  • The news media has been more diligent in reporting incidents this year because of the national and international (particularly American) discourse around racism and immigrants   
  • Better SEO and Google News algorithms have made ‘more’ incidents appear this year in databases
  • Easy access to mobile phones makes it easier for people to capture incidents as they happen, and later report them to authorities.
  • People living in Vancouver have become more sensitive to incidents of racism and are now reporting at higher rates than in the past
  • There have, simply, been more racist incidents this year than at any point in the past decade

Final Thoughts

What are we to make of all of this? Well, I don’t know yet. There is still much work to be done in cross-referencing this data. Specifically, I hope to contact municipal police and RCMP detachments in the region to obtain statistics on racist incidents. By comparing their data with the data I have gathered about ‘newsworthy incidents,’ I hope to have a better picture of what our local media and social landscape really looks like.

I am also hoping to turn this database into a collaborative project at some point in the near future, so that individuals can contribute both incidents that have been reported in the news, as well as those that have gone unreported.

Finally, it is worth saying that not all of these flyers (or their creators) are, by definition, ‘racist.’ There is a legitimate public discussion to be had around the issues of immigration, multiculturalism, and ethnic diversity. These flyers raise these issues, but they do so in a confrontational way.

However, I think that the popular perception is that these flyers are a means of expressing racist and/or xenophobic sentiments in an acceptable format. The inflammatory language used (“Step aside whitey! The Chinese are taking over!”) overshadows the message (that there are problems with home ownership and language, due to in influx of non-English speaking immigrants over the past couple of decades). In addition, it is very difficult to divorce the messages on these flyers — however valid — from their association with the politics of the alt-right, which is a movement that has strong links to white supremacy. In other words, we are using ‘racist’ as a shorthand for ‘looks racist.’

More to come.