This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.
They sat in the center of the poorly lit bar when we walked in.
We had been instructed to meet at Cranberries Lounge in the Edmonton Radisson Hotel in Alberta for 7 PM. The group was twelve or so strong, with about half of the crew wearing shirts with the insignia of a Norse man sporting a Canadian flag for a beard.
Emblazoned on the front, with a biker-like design, was "SOO."
The two of us were the last to arrive and after shaking hands with the leader—a man named William—he called for the meeting to move over to the pool table.
It was time to introduce the newbies to the established members of the Edmonton chapter of the Soldiers of Odin.
The international group has been described as everything from a far-right vigilante group and neo-Nazis—two descriptions they actively dispute—to heroes keeping the streets clean. Despite its historic name, the club has a very short history, forming in October 2015 in the small northern Finnish town of Kemi as a response to an influx of migrants. It's since expanded to many more towns and countries across Europe.
At the heart of all of these cells exists a burning anti-immigration sentiment.
The group gained infamy for their patrols, group events where they gather and march through the snowy streets of Finland as a show of intimidation to the refugees. There haven't been any reported acts of violence; the group has publicly stated they consider the patrols "observe-and-report styled patrols" but, if necessary, they will "come to the defense of anyone who may need us."
Petteri Orpo, the Finnish interior minister, has said that the group harbors obvious racist and anti-immigration sentiments, that their actions "do not improve security," and that police have to waste resources monitoring them.
Now, the group named for the Norse god of death and war (but also wisdom and culture) has come to Canada.
The Roots of Odin
Operating in a structure very similar to a motorcycle club, the group has opened chapters in Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Ontario, British Columbia, and possibly more in the past two months.
This was only the second meeting of the Edmonton chapter. One of the Ontario chapters only held its first meeting earlier this month, and others are still figuring a date out.
In the club's Canadian charter, they explain its reasoning for forming in the great white north:
"Between the allowing of illegal aliens into this country and giving them the ability to vote and drive, accepting refugees from countries that hate us while Canadians are on the streets, releasing confirmed terrorists back to their organizations to cause more harm against Canada, and demonizing anything that has to do with European Culture to try and create racial tensions to turn citizens on one another; we as Soldiers Of Odin realize that it is time to take back our streets, provinces, and country."
The Finnish founder of Soldiers of Odin, Mika Ranta, is a self-described neo-Nazi who has a history of violence against migrants and was convicted in 2005 for a racially motivated assault against migrants. Ranta has said that even though the group was formed by him, the views he expresses don't reflect the group as a whole.
"White Supremacists are welcome to join the Odins, but only five percent of Odins hold these views," Ranta told the Daily Mail in February.
"On the other hand, not a single one strongly disagrees."
The Daily Mail, which gained access to a Finnish cell, reported that the clubhouse they saw was filled with Nazi memorabilia and there was open talk about ethnic cleansing (though, not everyone agreed on the subject).
Infiltrating the Alberta Cell
The group in Edmonton, on the surface, didn't seem to be nearly as extreme as their Finnish brethren. Instead, they were extremely concerned with image and preached strict adherence to their charter. At one point, one of the leaders hinted at why this is the case.
"The guys in Europe, they're dealing with some real shit, we might not see that here for ten or so years. When that happens we want to look as good as possible."
While they assured the group that patrols will happen, the meeting focused primarily on volunteerism at a local homeless shelter and cleaning up garbage. The men around the pool table seemed dedicated to staying on the straight and narrow.
"We're not criminals, and we're not fucking vigilantes," William told to the group.
Edmonton's Soldiers of Odin is made up of men who said they love Canada "the way it is." The men were nice, charming at times, to my friend and I—albeit we were two white men—but it was also obvious that these were not men to cross.
They came from all sorts of backgrounds: truck drivers, retired army men, riggers. One of the members claimed two cops had joined the BC chapter a few days ago.
There was camaraderie in the air.
Like many organizations, the chapters organize and primarily recruit online.
When I initially tried to join the group, I was blocked almost immediately. I decided to see if I could get in with a different profile. I created one with a stock Soldiers of Odin profile pic and used a promotional photo of the notoriously racist band Skrewdriver as a cover photo.
I gained access to three chapters within an hour; I was invited to the meeting within two.
While the group publicly states that they are not a racist group, in the group's closed Facebook page, anti-Islamic sentiment is strong and makes up the vast majority of posts.
A post in the Alberta chapter's Facebook group was an article about the arson of a mosque in San Bernardino: Three comments below it read "Good work," "Only 20,000 more to go," and "Hopefully it was full."
Two of the specific points in the Canadian charter, section 14 and 16, specifically outlaw racism and "religion bashing." It goes on to say "once you put on the Odin's Head you leave it all at the door and can pick it up when you take off the Odin's Head."
The Finnish chapter has said that personal views aren't of concern to the group as long as members follow the rules.
The people behind the website "Anti-racist Canada" found that several members, including higher-ups in some chapters, either are, or have ties to, white supremacists—some are connected to Blood & Honour and the Creativity Movement.
Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims explains that this isn't the first time that a foreign anti-immigration, or anti-Islamic, group has come to Canada and tried to establish itself. She references the anti-Islamic group Pegida that came here but couldn't find any traction. She says that "gives a lot of Canadians a lot of hope."
Elghawaby cites stories like the Ontario community of Petersburg rallying around the Muslim community after a mosque was torched, and people gathering to clean up after someone spraypainted "Go Home" on a local mosque in Cold Lake, Alberta.
"I think there are positive stories all around us but… there's a negative sentiment," said Elghawaby. "An Angus Reid poll came out last March that showed 44 percent of Canadians held a negative view of Muslims. That is a significant number of Canadians."
"They're a minority, but they're a sizable minority."
Statistics Canada published its latest numbers regarding hate crimes earlier in this week. The numbers show a stark increase of hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims, doubling in three years from 45 per year to 99.
Canada has taken in around 25,000 Syrian refugees, which, like in Finland, is the spark that ignited the movement and keeps it burning. The Belgian attacks, Cologne sex assaults, and, specific to Canada, the embarrassing Chronicle Herald debacle has only added fuel to the flames.
With IRL meetings already happening, the group has clearly benefited from having an organizational structure to build off. The group is broken up into two divisions per province. Each one of those sections will have a division leader who will report to the national president. If the section is large enough, there will be regional leaders. Every section, including the national charter, will have a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, and sergeant at arms, which should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Sons of Anarchy.
The group's charter outlines a strict "prospect" process to become a member, which includes complete obedience:
"Membership qualification number eight—prospects must do anything another member tells him to do, that a member has done or would be willing to do himself."
The charter lists many rules for the club, such as a minimum age of 18, that "if you go to jail for some reason, notify an officer or member so he can try to arrange for your bail," and that "the only altercations tolerated by this group are self-defense scenarios."
The group also demands complete silence about the club. Unsurprisingly, ranked Canadian members of Soldiers of Odin did not respond to VICE for comment.
Where Will Odin Go Now?
It's hard to say where the group will go from here and if Canada will see a group of burly men, raised on biker shows, vigilante comics, and right-wing anti-immigration media, patrolling its suburban streets.
All I know is the wannabe Soldiers of Odin I've met made me deeply uncomfortable and nervous.
Under the pool lights in the hotel lounge, the group chatted openly with each other about how they've talked to the Hells Angels and other biker groups about their patch, and how it might be too similar to other designs. At the end of the meeting, the chapter head pointed at my friend and I and told us they would need to see some ID so we can prove we were over 25—a rule particular to Edmonton.
"It's always safe to check, if we find out people are too young or aren't who they say, it's never good," he said.
"Yeah, we might have to show up at someone's house," joked the man to the right of him.
This shook us up immediately. We'd given them fake names, so we lied and said that we left our IDs in our vehicle—a rather suspicious thing to do in a bar.
Looking at us closely, he nodded and told us he "would follow us to the truck" at the end of the meeting to check. A few minutes later, the group called for a smoke break and the two of us said we were going to grab a beer and meet them out there.
The minute they were out of sight we fled through the kitchen. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.