Sault Ste. Marie’s Soldiers of Odin: Refugee Crisis Ripple Effects

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Editor’s Note: The Northern Hoot sat down with three members of Sault Ste. Marie’s local Soldiers of Odin chapter and spoke with community members that have interacted with the group. We also spoke with Ryan Scrivens, a researcher at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who studies Canada’s right-wing extremists.

So, the Soldiers of Odin. Patriotic Canadians? Right-wing extremists? Or somewhere in between? You decide.

At a Glance: The World Today

A quick scroll through Facebook – depending on your settings, or a steady flick through cable news channels provides a barrage of bad news every day. Since four coordinated attacks in 2001 by the Islamic terrorist group, al-Qaeda, on American soil, resulting in the loss of 2,993 people and injuries to 8,900 people, Westerners have become attuned to increasing terrorist activity around the globe. In October 2016 alone, 2,363 people lost their lives to terrorism and another 1,145 sustained injuries because of terrorist activity.

The number of lives lost to terrorism increased by 80% in 2014, reaching the highest level ever recorded at 32,658, according to the 2015 edition of the Global Terrorism Index. The report also highlights that 78% of all deaths and 57% of all attacks occurred in just five countries -Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, and that countries suffering over 500 deaths increased by 120% to 11 countries. Developed by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) the report reveals that just “two terrorist groups, ISIL and Boko Haram, are now jointly responsible for 51% of all global fatalities from claimed terrorist attacks”.

In a release prepared by the Institute for Economics and Peace, executive chairman, Steve Killelea, states, “…in the West, socio-economic factors such as youth unemployment and drug crime correlate with terrorism. In non-OECD countries, terrorism shows stronger associations with ongoing conflict, corruption and violence.” Killelea also remarked that “ten of the eleven countries most affected by terrorism also have the highest rates of refugees and internal displacement. This highlights the strong inter-connectedness between the current refugee crisis, terrorism and conflict.”

As well, the report found that “lone wolf attacks are the main perpetrators of terrorist activity in the West, causing 70% of all deaths over the past 10 years. Islamic fundamentalism was not the main driver of terrorism in Western countries: 80% of lone wolf deaths were by political extremists, nationalists, racial and religious supremacists.”

Canadians who might have once managed to block out these 21st century realities by tossing up barricades of cat memes or binging on reality shows would be challenged today as the ripple effects of terrorist activity break upon Canadian shores.

refugeesOver 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives since anti-government protests escalated into a full-scale civil war. More than 11 million Syrians have been forced to flee Syria as Islamic State jihadist militants, as well as those opposed to his rule, battle President Bashar al-Assad and those loyal to him. In 2016, Canada received 56,000 Syrian refugees and it is anticipated that 40,000 more will be welcomed into the country in 2017.

According to a CBC report, “Canada plans to accept 300,000 new immigrants next year, the same total as this year, but more of those immigrants will be economic and family migrants and fewer will be refugees and humanitarian cases.” The report provides that of the $678 million earmarked for the Trudeau government’s Syrian refugee plan as of June 2016, $32.6 million has been spent.

A Globe and Mail’s Nanos Survey report, released August 2016, found that “a comfortable majority of Canadians support or somewhat support the government’s overall response to the Syrian refugee crisis, while the majority also support or somewhat support making the screening process for potential immigrants more onerous for those from the Middle East and similar areas. Nearly four in ten each say Canada should accept the same or fewer immigrants in 2017 than it has this year, and most Canadians oppose or somewhat oppose allowing temporary foreign workers to take jobs while qualified Canadians are looking for work.” A recent Nanos poll by the Globe and Mail indicated that 61% of Canadians do not believe there are enough resources in place to ensure a smooth resettlement for Syrian refuges.

This confluence of international events sets a perfect stage for the emergence of humanitarian efforts, the development of Western immigration policy as well as rigorous debate about such policies, and the incarnation of hate groups, in juxtaposition to the Right-Wing Extremist (RWE) groups that already exist.

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S.O.O -Soldiers of Odin

According to Wikipedia, the Soldiers of Odin was founded in the town of Kemi in Northern Finland in October 2015 in response to an almost ten-fold increase in the number of migrants to Finland following the European migrant crisis in 2015. The founder is Mika Ranta, who while a self-declared neo-Nazi and member of the Finnish Resistance Movement maintains that his personal views do not represent the group as a whole.

Finnish newspaper, Aamulehti, interviewed Ranta a few days after he formed the group where he explained that he established the Soldiers of Odin due to the influx of immigrants in his town. In a translation of the interview provided by the publication Spesia, Ranta is quoted as stating, “We woke up to a situation where many different cultures met. It caused fear and concern in the community. We started gathering people.” Ranta went on to add that “the biggest issue was when we learned from Facebook that new asylum seekers were peering through the gates of primary schools, looking at young girls.” According to the article. An asylum seeker reception centre is located in Kemi just 30 km from the border town Torino, where the majority of asylum seekers arrive. Ranta, a self-described National Socialist, also states in the article, that his “opinions are his own” and that all kinds of people belong to the Soldiers of Odin –a “family friendly” group.

Wikipedia records that in 2016, the Soldiers of Odin gained momentum after “incidents such as the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany and several other countries including Finland, the 2016 Sweden asylum center stabbing, and other migrant-related crime incidents.”

On a national and local –Sault Ste. Marie, home front a new group has appeared, identifying themselves as Soldiers of Odin. Some have said that the Soldiers of Odin are a RWE group, capitalizing their hate and racism on the fear created by terrorism, peddling their message on the bloodied heels of Syrian refugees and cloaking anti-immigration, anti-Muslim rhetoric in good community deeds. The Soldiers of Odin and their supporters take offence, asserting that they are not anti-immigration but pro-Canadians who are concerned about unemployment, homelessness, crime and the cost of education –to name a few, expressing that Canada needs to take better care of its own before opening their borders to immigrants.

The Anti-Defamation League has named the Soldiers of Odin as “an extreme anti-refugee group”.

The Soldiers of Odin: A Sault-Centric Take

Claude Torma is Sault born and raised. A former transport driver, he stays close to home now, operating heavy equipment and trucks with a local construction outfit.

Claude Torma, President of Sault Ste. Marie Sons of Odin Chapter and Sons of Odin Ontario North.

Claude Torma, President of Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin Chapter and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North.

Torma is also the president of the Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin chapter and the Soldiers of Odin Ontario North amalgam.

He came home from work in the winter of 2016 and flipped on the T.V. A CNN piece reporting on the international proliferation of a new group identifying as Soldiers of Odin captured Torma’s attention. In Norse mythology, Odin is the god of war and death- as well as a sky god and the god of wisdom and poetry. Originating in Kemi, Finland, the Soldiers of Odin captured the interest of Torma who is of Finnish descent.

“I said ‘I’m going to bring that here’ and everybody laughed,” chuckled Torma. A few months later, in April, Torma did just that. The group started small and was composed of just two of his close friends when they introduced themselves to the community during their first canned food drive for St. Vincent De Paul and the Soup Kitchen.

The Canadian branch of the Soldiers of Odin formed in 2016. Its president, Joel Angott, provided in a CBC report that they are not affiliated with racism or white supremacy stating, “That’s just misinformation that’s been brought over from other countries. What they do over in Finland and in Europe, they have all sorts of different issues altogether. That’s not really what we are. We’re an independent charter of Soldiers of Odin; we’re a community watch group.”

When asked if the local chapter or the founding chapter espoused anti-immigrant and racist beliefs Torma remarked, “These guys in Finland formed this neighbourhood watch group to walk the streets to protect their own people. I don’t understand where people pull the racism from that. There’s nothing racist about protecting your own people. It’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s absurd. And it upsets me that people think it’s racist. As far as I’m concerned, walking the streets protecting women and children is not racist.”

Asked to elaborate on who someone’s “own people” might be Torma commented, “The people that live with you in your country –it could be someone from any race, creed or colour. It’s your countrymen and you want to protect them from any outsiders that are going to harm them. And there’s nothing racist about that.”

Torma was candid about his thoughts on immigration in Canada. “In Germany on New Year’s day there was like fourteen rapes in broad daylight by refugees. Like, I’m not against refugees but I’m against the ones that are doing that. I’m against anybody doing that. There should be no beating of women or children or anybody,” remarked Torma adding, “The influx of Syrian refugees was unbelievable –hundreds of thousands of them. So there are going to be bad ones. I do gotta agree with how the Soldiers of Odin is protecting people.”

Savitri Sookhoo is the Secretary-Treasurer and her partner, Eric Korell, is the Vice-President of Sault Ste. Marie’s Soldiers of Odin chapter and of Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Sookhoo and Korell are Torma’s good friends and were among the early members to join Torma in his crusade.

Savitri Sookhoo -Secretary-Treasurer Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin Chapter and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Eric Korell -Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin Chapter and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North.

Savitri Sookhoo -Secretary-Treasurer Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin Chapter and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Eric Korell -Sault Ste. Marie Soldiers of Odin Chapter and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North.

Sookhoo first learned about the Soldiers of Odin from Korell. Sookhoo, who shared that she and her children survived below poverty-line conditions thanks to the kindness of her local church and helpful community groups, expressed that the Soldiers of Odin provided an opportunity for her to pay those kindnesses forward. The local chapter of the Soldiers of Odin has engaged in numerous food drives, collecting dirty needles from public places and have supported the individual needs of members in the community.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘why would you want to be in a racist group’. And I say, ‘I’m not sure you are aware but I am brown and I am a woman so how can you say this is a racist group’,” admitted Sookhoo.

Sookhoo, who is half Chinese and half Indian, migrated to North America from Trinidad in 1988 with her family when she was 16 years old.

“I am a Canadian citizen,” remarked Sookhoo. “We maintained a lot of our culture –the religion and the food. But we became more Canadian. There were a lot more opportunities in Canada for me and because of that I appreciated and adapted. I became more Canadian. There were a lot of racists when I came to Canada but there were a lot more positive people than negative.”

Of her experiences with the members of the Soldiers of Odin, Sookhoo confided, “These boys take very, very good care of me. And it doesn’t feel like a group or a club. It feels like a family. They come over and we cook and drink and sing. In my culture, music and family holds it together and this feels like family.”

Torma made a point of adding that the local chapter had members who were also of Lebanese background, and First Nations individuals. Several chapters have spoken out about their inclusion of different races including the Soldiers of Odin Thompson chapter in Kamloops.

Today the local Soldiers of Odin group is comprised of 10 members and 6 prospects. Including Sault Ste. Marie, municipalities and townships encompassing Soldiers of Odin Northern Ontario are Timmins, Sudbury, North Bay, Ignace, Blind River, Dubreville and Thunder Bay.

Regarding the recruitment of members to the Sault Ste. Marie chapter, Torma stated that word of mouth and social media has been most effective. “We have a support page –Soldiers of Odin Northern Ontario Support where people find us. There’s a probationary period because we want people that are going to come into our group, our family, and we want them to stay. We want to make sure that you have the same agenda as we do. We don’t want any severely racist people or people that just want to be in it for the fame. You have to truly want it in your heart to help people.”

Korell contributed, “That’s a major criteria –people have to be willing to get off their asses and actually go out and help. It’s not just a Facebook page for us.”

Korell learned about the Soldiers of Odin through social media. When Torma approached him about beginning a local chapter, Korell was all for it. Like Torma, Korell is of Finnish descent and the Soldiers of Odin had a natural appeal to him for its cultural origin.

“I was really interested because number one, I’m a Finlander by descent,” Korell admitted. “I’ve always been a very patriotic person and I’ve always had a real problem in Canada –for instance, when you’re at Walmart and you say ‘Merry Christmas’ to a cashier, you can tell from the look in her eye she’s been told not to say ‘Merry Christmas’ back to you. And you know City Hall can’t have a Christmas tree. They have to have a Holiday Tree. We see it in Ontario schools where they want to make special prayer rooms for Muslims but we can’t say the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of our day anymore. We were always a country that was so free that we never had to define ourselves. Well, we’d better start defining ourselves or we might not have any identity at all.”

When asked if Korell fell into the category applied by Soldiers of Odin critics who assert that the group is anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, Korell maintained that he did not.

“When the Soldiers of Odin came around I looked at it and read what the guys were doing around the world. It’s not about race, it’s not about religion. It’s just about standing up and deciding who you are and not being afraid to stick up for it,” remarked Korell. “I don’t care what religion somebody is, I don’t care what colour they are –my wife is brown for crying out loud and so are our kids. It’s not even about the Muslims or the Syrians coming over here- they obviously need our help. The problem is that our government seems to be able to find all the money they need for certain groups of people and then the groups that have been here for a hundred years can’t get a helping hand. It’s become very unbalanced.”

Torma agreed with Korell’s sentiments. On Canada’s immigration policy Torma believes it “needs to slow down”. When asked if Torma was anti-immigration he remarked, “I am right now. And when I say immigration I mean everybody- people from England. White people. I’m not saying just people from Iraq or Syria. So it can’t be racist. I feel we should be helping the people that were born here first and then help other people. Everybody immigrated to Canada except for the Natives. But we’re at the point now where people are having a really hard time with jobs and having enough to eat. We should be helping the people that are already here. Don’t you think? Canada is having a hard time right now.”

Korell chimed, “We’re bringing new people into a house with a crumbling foundation.”

Torma emphasized that while members of Soldiers of Odin may have personal views about immigration –or other things, that such views are checked when coming together under the Soldiers of Odin banner.

“My opinion does not affect the Soldiers of Odin at all,” remarked Torma. “When we don the Odin’s head, when we put our gear on, all religion and beliefs stay at the door and we go about our business.”

On their Soldiers of Odin Northern Ontario Support Facebook page the group provides the following description:

Soldiers Of Odin Canada is a non-racist, conservative organization that seeks to keep Canadians safe in their daily activities and also uphold and protect our Constitutional Rights, by acting as a nationwide community watch organization. We believe that the higher authorities are failing the Canadian citizens. 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. We believe in protecting the streets with observe-and-report styled patrols, and if necessary come to the defense of anyone who may need us. We are the eyes and ears of the police in places that the police cannot always be. We want to cooperate with local authorities to help make local communities better. We will also host family friendly events and give back to the local charities in our communities. We have members of different races, religions, backgrounds, and creeds; but when members don the S.O.O. Canada Odin’s Head all personal beliefs are forgotten and we all stand together.

Just to make it clear, we are not:
A racist group
A religions group
A gang
A motorcycle club
Or any sort of criminal organization

We are the Soldiers Of Odin Ontario. We protect and monitor the streets. Together we can protect our Canada!

When a search of the Soldiers of Odin Canada’s Facebook page for a ‘Description’ is conducted, one is not found. In their Facebook ‘About’ section it is indicated that, “This group is operating under Finland Kemi section”.

Right-Wing Extremism: Alive and Well in Canada

In the 2016 report, Uneasy Alliances: A Look at the Right-Wing Extremist Movement in Canada, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Perry & Scrivens defined right-wing extremism (RWE) from a Canadian context, writing:

We suggest that RWE is a loose movement, animated by a racially, ethnically, and sexually defined nationalism. This nationalism is typically framed in terms of White power, and is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by such groups as non-Whites, Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and feminists. As a pawn of the Jews, the state is perceived to be an illegitimate power serving the interests of all but the White man. To this end, extremists are willing to assume both an offensive and defensive stance in the interests of preservingtheir heritage and their homeland’.

In their research, Perry & Scrivens identify that “the birth of the Internet also increased right-wing extremists’ visibility, as well as their potential for recruitment and “lone wolf” activity. Websites and online communities provided connections amongst right-wing extremists and groups, as well as a venue in which far right ideologies were embraced.”

Moreover, Perry & Scrivens provide that the appearance of RWE has changed over the decades. They write:

The visible face of the extreme right wing, the one that we typically envisage, is the tattooed, snarling, angry young White male. There is a great deal of truth to that image, as some of the most active and in fact dangerous representatives of the movement do offer a malevolent presentation of self. Selfies and other photos posted to RWE websites, for example, often feature images that reflect tough guypostures. Yet these are the storm troops, the front lines. Behind the lines stand others who seek to further their cause through slightly more subtle means, in a way that makes it more palatable, more acceptable to a public sensitized by a generation of discourse of equality, multiculturalism, and diversity. In a word, hate is increasingly mainstream,and thus increasingly legitimate. In part, this has been accomplished by toning down the rhetoric, and doing away with the white robes and brown shirts. But it has also accomplished by forging links with the ultimate authority: the state.

Regarding recruitment strategies employed by RWE’s, the report indicates, “…the bulk of individuals are lured in by people they know personally. Group members are often friends or associates -sometimes even relatives of potential recruits, prior to joining. They are thus encouraged by people they know and presumably trust.”

Making an appearance on the world’s radar in 2015 as an organized group, the Soldiers of Odin are new on the scene and not much is known about their rapidly growing movement.

Ryan Scrivens

Ryan Scrivens, Simon Fraser University

Author of the report quoted above, Ryan Scrivens, provided an academic analysis about what is known of the Soldiers of Odin so far. His Simon Fraser University bio states that he is “a PhD student in the School of Criminology and the Coordinator of the Canadian Network of PhD Theses Writers for the Terrorism Research Initiative (TRI) and a member of the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence. His primary research interests include: right-wing extremism, extremists’ use of the Internet, research methods and methodology, and classification techniques.

Critics and some observers of the Soldiers of Odin classify the group as Right-Wing Extremists (RWE) –as defined above, and that includes Scrivens.

“If you take a look back to when the Soldiers of Odin were making an appearance in Canada their rhetoric on-line was much different than it is now.  They’re rooted in anti-immigration, targeted specifically towards Muslims. Depending where they are and how upset they want to be about it, they are concerned about ISIS taking over. It’s kind of a conspiracy theorist approach where they think ISIS or Muslims in general are going to take over if their group doesn’t protect their citizens,” remarked Scrivens.

Elaborating Scrivens added, “My guess is when they started getting a little more public attention they didn’t want to be perceived as a far right group so they started to back track to paint themselves as a more acceptable group. And that’s not new to the right-wing extremism movement not only in a Canadian context but in a global context. They’re trying to make their message more presentable so they can attract more people to their group. And that’s why they are trying to frame themselves as Canadians and the victims of potential ISIS inspired attacks and anything along those lines.”

Scrivens stated that RWE’s tend to flourish “during times of social and economic instability” and that the current government’s admittance of Syrian refugees helped stoke the fires.

“There’s this notion that Trudeau let in all these refugees who are terrorists. That’s where a lot of this is fueling from. A lot of particular groups are fueled around one particular event and I would argue that’s probably the main event. That’s why the Soldiers of Odin formed in Finland.”

According to Scrivens, RWE groups apply various strategies to legitimize their cause including the membership of non-white members and good deeds.

“What’s really interesting about this group is that they are saying ‘oh, well we have non-white people in our group’. I have heard that some non-white people have been attracted to this particular group but I don’t think they really understand who these people running the show are.”

Characterizing recruits, Scrivens remarked, “These groups are typically formed from your blue-collar individual. The far right within a Canadian context and even a global context is different from radical groups- it’s a blue collar individual who might not be as well educated as others as to what they are getting in to. I think they are very much misinformed. My assumption is that a lot of people being recruited at the low-level might not be full-fledged right-wing extremists but obviously have far-right ideals. People at the top would be right-wing extremists –one hundred percent.”

Regarding the community activities the Soldiers of Odin have been involved with, and specifically the Sault Ste. Marie chapter of Soldiers of Odin, Scrivens commented, “They are trying to legitimize a cause. It doesn’t matter what they say. What do they stand for? They stand for Muslims not allowed in the country. They are just painting Muslims with a broad stroke and that they are all terrorists. That is extreme. It doesn’t matter how they want to frame the argument.”

In terms of the Soldiers of Odin’s staying power, Scrivens expressed that their longevity could be a flash in the pan.

“Within a Canadian context a lot of these groups come and go. With our research these groups don’t have the shelf life of more than a couple of months to a couple of years because there is a lot of in-fighting with these groups. It’s a lot of masculine individuals jockeying for power. A lot of times a group will splinter off into little groups where people are jumping from one group to group because they can’t really find an ideology that fits them- they’re literally trying on different jackets. And when you have all of these things together, you have a really unstable movement.”

According to Scrivens, as well as what can be found about the Soldiers of Odin in the media, the group has not demonstrated violent tendencies. But Scrivens argues that detail while “important”, a “more important point” exists.

“By the Soldiers of Odin marching around the street, it sends an intimidating message to anybody in the community that is non-white. The biggest thing -whether they are taken seriously or even if there isn’t violence, their message is very dangerous. Think of a spectrum of right on the right side, left on the left side. When you have these people walking around spewing their hate around in a somewhat legitimate manner, it kind of pushes what we perceive as the far-right a little more centre. So it’s making the far-right a little more mainstream. That’s what we are most concerned about. Them committing an act of violence is one thing but them just marching around the streets and pretending they are community activists and engaging in whatever activities they are doing on part of the community is a problem. It’s making hate more mainstream and that’s what’s of concern to me.”

Communities in Canada, like Hamilton and Saskatchewan, have stonewalled efforts by locals to form chapters of the Soldiers of Odin or carry out community activities.

“Groups like this typically stick around in an environment where they are accepted. If a community puts up a wall and says ‘we’re not tolerating this’ then they tend to move on and they go somewhere else.”

Community Perception: The Soldiers of Odin Get Involved

Since news of the Soldiers of Odin’s arrival in Sault Ste. Marie broke via freelance journalist, Jeff Klassen, in a sootoday report, reactions from the community have been mixed. Some individuals have called the Soldiers of Odin out as a racist hate group and others have praised their community efforts.

In speaking with members of the community and organizations that have interacted with the Soldiers of Odin during the groups community outreach, reactions were supportive or indifferent –some say that they were not aware of the political controversy surrounding the group.

Rebecca Sawyer, Misty's Fifties Night Manager

Rebecca Sawyer, Misty’s Fifties Night Manager

Rebecca Sawyer is the night manager at Misty’s Fifties Bar and Grill in Sault Ste. Marie. Sawyer considers Claude Torma a friend and also described him as a regular.

“With Claude being one of our customers here on a regular basis we followed him when it came down to creating his group and the things he was aiming to accomplish. We decided that anything we could help with- we definitely wanted to. And it’s been pretty productive.”

Misty’s Fifties has participated on two food drives with the Soldiers of Odin. According to Sawyer, the business is not concerned about the mixed reaction from the community.

“It’s really nice to see them going out and trying to make a noticeable difference in things. And I think the fact that they are getting balls for it left, right and centre, or being picked on for it, is a waste of peoples’ time and effort. Why point out all of the bad flaws when there is a lot of good things going on? I know there was some controversial or racial this-that-or-the-other, but realistically the same could be said about the people that are saying things about him. I’ve never found Claude to be that type of person at all- like a racial person or biased towards anyone in particular.”

When Sawyer was asked what she thought of the groups’ position on refugees in Canada (as outlined in their Charter –found on the Soldiers of Odin Northern Ontario Support Facebook page) she replied, “To be honest, the only reason it doesn’t trouble me at all is because even though I’m not racist or anti-immigrant I am a Canadian citizen. Canada has an open door policy. And yeah, as a Canadian citizen that troubles me. Not necessarily because of who it is, but because it’s anyone.”

Katherine Fenn, a Sault Ste. Marie resident, was attempting to exit a domestic situation –and she did. However, the single mother of two found herself struggling to make her new apartment a home. Absent of furniture and modern day amenities- like a toaster and a pantry of non-perishables, she reached out to the Soldiers of Odin and they responded.

“They helped me out with furniture and odds and ends. Food. Things that made it feel more like a home,” she shared.

Of the negative perception some hold of the group Fenn remarked, “They’re just people. All they want to do is help the community and I’m all for it. There should be more people like them here. I’d reach out to them again if I absolutely had to. It’s great to know there are people like that in the community because there’s not really many options when you are without.”

st-vincents-placeNat Cicchelli is the General Manager of St. Vincent De Paul – a men’s shelter in Sault Ste. Marie.

Cicchelli expressed the shelter’s experience with the Soldiers of Odin “was good”. “They came and brought stuff in and we asked them if they were interested in the blue box food drive because we needed drivers and they gave us a couple names. We called them and they said ‘ya, we’ll be there Saturday’ and they were. They were very nice, very friendly. They helped with unloading and everything. So that’s the impression I got.”

Cicchelli also expanded that St. Vincent De Paul was a Christian organization that doesn’t get involved in the beliefs of other religious or political groups.

“We have volunteers from all different church groups and different organizations. So depending on the organization and what their beliefs are and what they are trying to promote, the Board may say that ‘we shouldn’t get involved, we are in the public eye’.”

Cicchelli expressed that he had not been aware of the Soldiers of Odin charter or their self-described explanation on the refugee situation in Canada.

“My parents came to this country on their own,” remarked Cicchelli offering his thoughts on the matter. “We were the Italians and we took a beating and what I think these new refugees are experiencing, we experienced that in the sixties and the seventies. The thinking is that they are taking jobs where there are no jobs. And all of a sudden they come into the country and who’s going to take care of them? In Sault Ste. Marie, there’s probably more people on unemployment and laid off then there are people working. And all of a sudden there’s more people coming into the City and the country and how does everybody take care of each other when there’s not enough taxpayer money to assist?”

According to Matthew Shoemaker, Sault Ste. Marie City Councilor, it was anticipated that the City would welcome in 50 refugee families during the Syrian refugee crisis. “I don’t think we’ve actually reached that number yet. Of the 25,000 the federal government was bringing in, 50 were apportioned to the Sault,” he wrote in an email reply.

Cicchelli rounded out his thoughts. “I think everybody has a concern. Some people won’t voice their concern. Like I said, I was born here but my parents came to this country and they took a lot of flak for years and years and years until Italians became doctors, lawyers, politicians- and then all of a sudden we weren’t the wops of the world, we were the Italians. I remember growing up through that as a kid. I was the wop on the street. We were the only Italian family on the street and everybody else was English.”

Asked if St. Vincent De Paul would continue to receive donations of items and time from the Soldiers of Odin Cicchelli commented, “Well they haven’t done anything out of the norm that we could red flag as something that we don’t want to be involved with. They did some outreach a couple of times. We’re open to everybody.”

soup-kitchenRon Sim is the General Manager at the Soup Kitchen Community Centre in Sault Ste. Marie. Asked about his experiences with the Soldiers of Odin Sim replied, “I haven’t really had much hands on with them. In the springtime they did a collection for us and St. Vincents. They had a big half-ton truck just loaded with stuff they collected -food and toiletries and that kind of stuff. We we’re very happy to receive that because we are always in need.”

Stacy Ryan is the Assistant Supervisor of the Children’s Program, Soup Kitchen. Of a more recent delivery in October by the Soldiers of Odin to the Centre, Ryan remarked, “They brought in a truck load of donations which was awesome. And they called to see what things we needed in particular.”

Sim was not aware of any controversy that suggests the group could be disguising a racist agenda in good deeds.

“I personally haven’t seen or heard any of that, never once -like for the small amount of time that we’ve interacted with each other, did that seem to come across. They’ve just been very polite and that’s about it. I haven’t really read up much about them but I think I will go online later. I would hate it if there was a chance that they had anything to do with any sort of discrimination because we do not do any of that here in our organization. We are here for everybody. No questions asked. All I’ve seen is the good works that they’ve done. Perhaps if I hear of anything that they may be doing that’s a little out there, well, who knows…But right now all they have done is helped us here so we’ll leave it at that.”

The Burning Question

The Soldiers of Odin have no intention of slowing down their activities in the community.

“There’s so many people out there that want to help- they don’t know how. Something like this gives you something that you can belong to. It’s like you’re part of a team. It’s a vehicle that you can use to go out and affect some kind of change,” shared Korell. “In 3 one and a half hour walks we picked up one-hundred and forty dirty needles off the street. We’ve brought three truckloads of food to the Soup Kithen and one truckload of food and supplies to St. Vincents. And we’re looking for more to do. It’s something that can grow and grow.”

Sookhoo added, “Aside from the things we are doing for the community, when we’re done and I get into the car I just get this high. I feel so great. And people come out and shake your hand and thank you. And it just feels amazing. It feels so great.”

“I just want to help people and help my country. It just feels like something I’m supposed to do,” remarked Torma. “Helping people is addicting. I get such a wicked feeling when we help people and that’s spreading through the whole group.” Referring to the most recent food drive for the Soup Kitchen Torma laughed and remarked, “It’s like we were getting ready for a football game or something.”

(left to right) Savitri Sookhoo -Secretary-Treasurer Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Claude Torma -President Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Eric Korel- Vice-President Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Dave Halle- Sergeant at Arms Sault Soldiers of Odin.

(left to right) Savitri Sookhoo -Secretary-Treasurer Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Claude Torma -President Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Eric Korel- Vice-President Sault Soldiers of Odin and Soldiers of Odin Ontario North. Dave Halle- Sergeant at Arms Sault Soldiers of Odin.

As far as other issues in the community on Torma’s and the local Soldiers of Odin radar, Torma was unsure.

“We haven’t really run into anything like that,” he remarked. “We aren’t doing street patrols because we haven’t really needed anything like that yet. I mean, some days I don’t even want to walk around downtown by myself, it’s getting bad here. But were not at that point yet where were going to be out patrolling the streets. And we don’t want to look like a bunch of thugs walking around either so we do our stuff in the daytime. You don’t want to see ten guys in black shirts walking around at night.”

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Soldiers of Odin, founded by Mika Ranta –a self-declared neo-Nazi, originated in Kemi Finland in 2015 in response to the refugee crisis in Europe. The backlash of the refugee crisis was exacerbated by the fact that most refugees were Muslim. On New Year’s Eve 2015 and January 2016 a number of assaults, acts of violence and vandalism occurred in several European communities. The incidences were alleged to have been committed by refugees. These incidences stimulated the propagation of Soldiers of Odin chapters throughout Europe and eventually in North America. Many European chapters have taken up street patrols in their communities to protect their citizens from refugees that the Soldiers of Odin believe are a threat particularly to women and children.

“This hasn’t happened here yet,” remarked Torma adding, “but if it does, we’ll be here.” Torma went on to re-emphasize that the European Soldiers of Odin chapters are uniquely responding to the needs in their cities and towns.

Korell admitted that many members of the Soldiers of Odin may disagree with Canada’s immigration policy and practices of late but reiterated that personal beliefs do not inform actions of the group and rejected claims by critics and right-wing extremist observers that the group is racist.

“We’re ultimately a Conservative thinking group,” remarked Korell. “The Conservatives don’t want immigration. The Liberals do. And it seems to me, the Liberals, especially over this topic –every single time you don’t agree with a Liberal you’re a racist, chauvinist, bigot. They put a label on everything that doesn’t agree with them. They’ve chosen to make us racist.”

Korell contributed, “Social media is trying so hard to paint us as having an agenda. We don’t sit around at our meeting talking about immigrants. We do not have a political agenda. You got a dozen of guys that want to go out and pick up some food for the homeless. They want to have a little club, they want to feel like they belong to something. They like the gear- the shirts are cool You know what I mean? For us, that’s all it really is.”

For many curious people, the obvious and burning question is, “If the membership is merely interested in operating as a community outreach group why choose the controversial banner of the Soldiers of Odin whose critics declare the group to be anti-immigration and anti-Muslim, and whose very founder has identified as a white supremacist and has espoused on numerous public platforms that the group is founded in reaction to the influx of mostly Muslim refugees?”

The question was put to Torma.

“I believe in what they are doing,” commented Torma. “I believe in everything they are doing. The way they are helping people, the way they are protecting people. And I’m talking about the World chapter here. I believe in what it stands for. And I’m right with them in Europe where they’re walking the streets to protect their women and children. And that’s why I’ll never change the name. And that’s why I’m very proud to be a Soldier of Odin. And that’s never going to change.”

*****

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