A controversial group with ties to an anti-immigrant organization in Europe now has a chapter in the Yukon.
But the Yukon president of the Soldiers of Odin says Canadian members of the group are “humanitarian aid volunteers” with no interest in racism or hatred.
James Albert says the Soldiers of Odin Yukon chapter has existed for nearly a year, and now has about 15 members in the territory. He moved to the Yukon in April, became a member in June and rose quickly through the ranks to become president.
“We’re just everyday Canadians trying to make a difference in our own communities, flying under a flag that some people agree with, some people don’t agree with,” he said.
Soldiers of Odin was founded in Finland in 2015, a response to the waves of refugees from Syria and elsewhere seeking asylum in Europe. The organization claimed to be a patrol group protecting Finns from criminal immigrants. Its founder has ties to the far right and a criminal conviction for a racially motivated assault in 2005.
The group has since spread across Europe and the United States, and has chapters across Canada, including in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Canadian members can be identified by their logo, a Viking helmet with a Canadian flag mask.
Albert said each Soldiers of Odin chapter aims to make its community better, and the focus in Canada is very different from the group’s mandate in Finland.
“They found over there that they had a lot of rapes and stuff going on,” he said. “So that’s their area’s weak spot which they are working on which we have nothing to do (with).”
Claims that an influx of refugees has led to a spike of sexual assaults in Europe have not been proven.
Albert says the group’s mandate in Canada is “to keep our country clean, keep it better, keep helping out, keep making a difference, look for areas that we can improve in our community.”
In the Yukon, he said, that means feeding the hungry. He said his group is working on a Christmas food drive for the Whitehorse Food Bank and a turkey drive for the Salvation Army’s Christmas dinner.
The executive directors of both organizations told the News they haven’t heard from the Soldiers of Odin, but Albert said they weren’t planning to identify themselves until they handed over the donations.
“I wanted to reveal our chapter on a positive note,” he said.
The Yukon group has also organized a couple of nighttime patrols through Whitehorse. Albert said they’ve handed out sandwiches and bottled water to people on the streets. One of their members is a nurse and they carry some basic medical supplies for people with minor injuries like bloody noses, he said.
If they encountered a violent incident, Albert said, “our first mandate is to call the RCMP, to basically observe and report when needed.”
He said the RCMP has questioned them on one of these patrols, but didn’t ask them to stop what they were doing.
“They just told us to have a good day, thanks for being honest,” he said.
The Yukon RCMP confirmed that it has spoken to one of the group members, but has not received any complaints about the group.
“Our desire for any community-based group or organization is that their actions and words are safe, lawful and peaceful,” a spokesperson told the News by email. “A transitory contact or interaction with a self-identified member of a group is not and should not be considered an endorsement or validation of that group.”
Albert said the Soldiers of Odin Yukon would ultimately like to form a security business to help screen people at events and make sure they don’t get rowdy.
“But our number one mandate is just to make a difference in the community, a positive difference,” he said.
He said immigrants and visible minorities have no reason to be concerned about the group, and said almost half of the Yukon chapter’s members are First Nation citizens.
Yukon Cares, the group that sponsored Whitehorse’s first Syrian refugee family, provided a statement that didn’t explicitly mention the Soldiers of Odin.
“We count on Yukoners to report to the police individuals who commit any hate crimes or are acting inappropriately towards anyone, no matter their religion, language, skin colour or ancestry,” it reads.
But Albert said he’d be interested in donating to groups raising money to bring refugees to Whitehorse.
“We’d definitely get involved in that to show that we are not here for that,” he said.
The Multicultural Centre of the Yukon and the Yukon Muslims Society declined to comment, saying they don’t know anything about the group’s activities in the territory.
In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League has concluded that the Soldiers of Odin are “a diverse coalition of right-wing extremists ranging from anti-government extremists to white supremacists,” and “can easily be considered a hate group.”
Albert expressed frustration that the Soldiers of Odin in Canada are routinely painted with the same brush as their counterparts elsewhere, especially in Finland.
Still, he didn’t have a clear answer as to why the group continues to use the name Soldiers of Odin if it doesn’t want to be linked to an extremist group.
“We talked about changing things and they’ve just made the decision to keep going on with this,” he said.
But he insists that Yukoners have nothing to worry about.
“We’re not here to burn crosses or anything like that,” he said. “We’re just here to make a difference, help feed some people, make a positive impact.”
Contact Maura Forrest at firstname.lastname@example.org