One Canadian chapter of the Soldiers of Odin is escalating from street patrols to vigilante investigations in an attempt to help local police.
Early in the morning of August 31, a young man walking through Red Deer's City Hall Park was stabbed in an attempted robbery. The assailant approached the 15-year-old boy with a knife, demanded all of his stuff and, when the boy didn't comply, a scuffle occurred. During the struggle, the teenager was cut severely on the chin with a knife. On September 5, police issued a press release seeking information on the suspect. At the same time, on a popular Facebook page a graphic image of the boy's injuries started to circulate. It didn't take long for the people of Red Deer to get outraged.
Within this group of outraged citizens were the members of the local Soldiers of Odin chapter, and the far-right anti-immigration group took it upon themselves to attempt to hunt down the suspect. On September 6 they attempted to do this by gearing up ten men, taking to the street, and demanded information. For the most part, Soldiers of Odin chapters in Canada have been content with just patrolling the streets in a show of force and intimidation. This is the first time in this country that the group has publically gone out seeking vigilante justice.
A homeless man named Craig, who asked that his last name not be used out of fear of retaliation, told VICE that he was one of the people the group interacted with that night. According to Craig, who has sporadically lived on the streets of Red Deer for the last three years, decided to talk to the group after seeing them patrolling.
"I approached them as a group to ask them some questions, I wanted to know what they stood for," Craig told VICE. "When I did, they kind of slowly just circled me while only one guy would talk to me. It had an eerie feel to it, it was mob mentality, intimidation stuff."
Craig told VICE it seemed "they came down there ready to go to battle" and their aggression wasn't well hidden. VICE spoke to people in Red Deer on background who reiterated these claims but didn't want to speak on the record out of fear of retaliation.
For Dr. Barbara Perry, an expert in hate crimes and far-right groups in Canada, this excursion into vigilante investigations marks a natural escalation for the group—one she believes is serious and needs to be addressed by the RCMP.
"This is in line from what they've done from the outset. To keep our streets safe, to do these street patrols," said Perry. "Many of these groups started to protect people from the 'Islamist [terror] threat' and I can't imagine there's much of that in Red Deer… Whether or not there is violence, there is intimidation."
"Other groups are likely to emulate them, they are likely to follow suit," she added. "The potential for violence in both directions is possible."
The Soldiers of Odin were formed in Finland by self-described white supremacist Mika Ranta, and Canada quickly followed suit in 2016 by setting up their own chapters. While Ranta has said members don't need to share his views, the Canadian group was likewise formed from a fiery anti-Islamic sentiment. The Red Deer chapter is careful about what it posts online and has yet to bring up Islam on their support page, but it is unknown what is discussed in the group's organizational pages. In 2016, VICE got an inside look into the Edmonton organization page and it showcased members celebrating the arson of mosques and calling for the killing of Muslims.
While the Soldiers of Odin, and other far-right groups in Canada, often publicly denounce white supremacy, several of their members have been linked back to organizations like Blood and Honour or the Creativity Movement—two white supremacist groups. In April of this year, the Canadian Odin chapter split off from the mother (Finnish) chapter because saying they "are here to help and protect the people of our great country, not to adhere to some racist, unorganized, reckless wanna be thug collaboration." Still, it leads one to ponder about why they continue to use the name of a notorious anti-Islamic and anti-immigration group.
In terms of chapters of Soldiers of Odin, Red Deer doesn't have much of a history. Checking back through their social media profile the Soldiers of Odin page for Red Deer was started in December of 2016—they've held a barbecue, done fundraisers and a meet and greet but not much else. The group states "we are not anti-immigration, we are pro-assimilation" in regards to their views on minorities. The chapter has been growing at a rapid pace and actually helped with security at the city's street performer festival, CentreFest.
Janice Shimek, the festival director for CentreFest, said the festival did not intentionally hire the Soldiers of Odin for security but they were instead invited by the group they did talk to, the Urban Bulldogs Against Kids Abuse—a non-profit biker organization that advocates against child abuse. The Soldiers of Odin showed up in their colours but were then asked to change out of them—some complied and others did not.
"We did receive a number of complaints from the community which we immediately dealt with," Shimek told VICE. "It was very unfortunate that this occurred."
Craig told VICE he spoke to several members of the street community in Red Deer who were approached by the Soldiers of Odin and they were mostly left shaken by what occurred. He said he is worried about what would happen if they attempted to intimidate a person suffering from mental illness—something rampant in the homeless community. According to Craig, many on the street believed they were a new gang.
"They went all over downtown that night, they asked all types of people, anyone they thought was a homeless person they asked," said Craig. "From what people told me, they didn't casually talk to people, it was like 'Hey, what do you know about the stabbing? This crap can't be going on down here. We gotta catch this guy. Do you know who this is? Do you know who that is?'"
"Everyone I talked to said they were treated fairly aggressively. People were thinking they were a new chapter of a biker gang that was there to kick some ass. There was a lot of people pretty shook that night," he said.
This stunt plays into groups recruitment. The Soldiers of Odin's Facebook post showing photos of them walking "gathering info on who could have done such a heinous crime"—this was shared almost a thousand times. Within the 90 or so comments, numerous people asked how they could join—even a woman who purported to be the stabbed boys mother responded positively toward the group. After the positive feedback given from the public, Dr. Perry said it's easy to see this vigilante tactic being picked up by other chapters and likewise groups across the country.
In the comment section of their Facebook post regarding their investigations, the Soldiers of Odin said they narrowed down who the suspect was and they were going to bring the information to the police. They said the people they got the information from "would not normally tell the police anything and generally dislike talking to any law enforcement. This is exactly why a street-level organization needs to exist."
Red Deer RCMP told VICE that they did receive several tips they are using during their call for information but none of the tipsters expressed allegiance to the Soldiers of Odin. RCMP Staff Sergeant Jeff McBeth said that Red Deer RCMP don't condone vigilante investigations saying, "it is never appropriate for individuals or groups to take the law into their own hands." McBeth went on to say investigations such as this can actually hinder, not help, the police's investigation.
"Civilians are not trained investigators and they don't have the skills, training or resources to conduct investigations or gather evidence in a way that will hold up in court," McBeth told VICE in an email. "In our experience, individuals or groups attempting to use vigilante tactics can do more harm than good—criminal investigation is not work that should ever be done by amateurs."
"They could endanger themselves, they could lure or entrap someone without understanding what they're doing, and they certainly don't follow privacy legislation or due process. Whenever vigilantes act, there's a strong possibility of someone getting hurt."
When contacted by VICE, the Soldiers of Odin turned down several requests for an interview. In a Facebook conversation with an unnamed member of the group, they said, "to us, it's not about a story it's about getting this guy into the hands of the authorities and off the street so he cannot do this again to anyone else." They also said they would be handing any information obtained to RCMP. When pressed about how they were getting this information from street people, the Soldiers of Odin only said: "by communicating with them." The group stopped responding to questions at this point.
As always with far-right groups such as the Soldiers of Odin, the worry is about escalation. Perry said many in groups like this tend to think the police aren't doing their jobs and wholeheartedly believe it is their duty to step in and take action in ways the police can't do—this is another phenomenon that is reiterated by other groups ala III% Alberta monitoring mosques they believe are training jihadis.
"This could easily escalate past just investigating to them taking the law into their own hands and beating the people they suspect are guilty of whatever or people they think are a threat," said Perry. "They could come to think of this as their right, and some would argue their responsibility, to do what law enforcement is incapable of doing."
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