Dawson Creek, B.C., is famous for being “Mile 0” of the Alaska Highway, but some residents of this community of 11,000 are worried it could gain a reputation for something else entirely: the presence of the Soldiers of Odin, a white-supremacist, anti-immigrant group.
The original chapter of the Soldiers of Odin was founded by a known neo-Nazi in Finland several years ago. In 2017 and 2018, men wearing Soldiers insignia took part in Take Back the Night walks in Dawson Creek, which were organized by the South Peace Community Resources Society, a local non-governmental organization.
The marches are meant to symbolize safe spaces for women, LGBTQ and other minorities who may find it dangerous to wander out alone after dark.
In recent years, Soldiers chapters across Canada have built a reputation by appearing at anti-immigration rallies from Montreal to Vancouver, and sometimes clashing with counter-demonstrators.
The RCMP has downplayed the threat posed by the group in Dawson Creek, but anti-hate activist Stephanie Goudie is not convinced. She has been surprised by the lack of response from Dawson Creek political leaders, and has been trying to draw attention to the matter since last fall.
“I think any group that has views that are hateful, that discriminate against any groups, should not be tolerated,” Goudie said.
Community leaders silent: critics
The Soldiers of Odin have attempted to create a positive image of the group by engaging in community dinners and neighbourhood watch programs in several Canadian cities. Critics say it is an attempt to mask the group’s anti-immigrant agenda.
The community group that organized Take Back the Night in Dawson Creek issued a public apology shortly after the fall 2018 march, saying the Soldiers were there “as a result of a failure to critically and thoroughly assess all volunteer activities involving our agency.”
Goudie fired up a petition in 2018 asking local political leaders to publicly denounce the Soldiers.
TheDawson Creek Mirror, a weekly newspaper, was the first media outlet to report on their presence in the community.
“It was in the middle of our [municipal] election season,” recalled the Mirror’s managing editor, Robert Brown. “That kind of brought more attention maybe locally than it would have any other time of the year.”
Brown was surprised by the responses of many local leaders, who either didn’t forcefully condemn the Soldiers, expressed ignorance on the matter or didn’t issue a stance at all.
It was “strange that we didn’t get more opinions from … people that [normally] want to talk to the media about everything under the sun,” he said.
The local RCMP detachment addressed the issue at a city council meeting last October. Staff Sgt. Damon Werrell explained that police were aware of the group’s recruiting efforts and their presence in neighbouring Alberta.
“Over the year that they’ve been operating in Alberta, there has been no indication of any kind of criminal element associated [with] that group,” Werrell said at the meeting. “There also has been no criminal element associated with the self-proclaimed members that are within Dawson Creek right now.”
Nonetheless, in December, the Canadian Anti-Hate Network issued a letter to Dawson Creek city hall and the RCMP, calling on them to “send a strong message” that they did “not support hate groups such as the Soldiers of Odin.”
Daniel Gallant, a lawyer in nearby Prince George who grew up in northern B.C. and specializes in dealing with the far right, also warned council. Neither he nor the Canadian Anti-Hate Network received a response.
Gallant is concerned about what he called apathy. “We legitimize these groups in the public’s eye [when we don’t condemn them], ” he said. “And that becomes an issue — they start spreading their message, they start recruiting successfully.”
Gallant, who wrote a paper for a UNESCO conference on the internet and youth radicalization, is worried that kind of normalization could eventually lead to physical harm.
“In the end, you can’t spread a violent ideology and message without that resulting in violence at some point,” he said.
Just a community group: Soldiers
In April, Facebook banned the Soldiers of Odin’s Canadian chapters from its pages in a wide-ranging purge, calling them a hate group. Since then, Soldiers-themed pages have sporadically reappeared under different names, such as SOO Canada, before they were taken down again.
Last week, the Royal Canadian Legion updated its policies after a CBC story revealed it had rented its facility in Grande Prairie, Alta., to Soldiers of Odin for an Easter dinner. The new policy prohibits the local branches of the veteran’s organization from affiliating with any hate-based group.
In an interview at the time, the Soldiers said their reputation as a hate group was unearned. They said they were only interested in carrying out charity work, even as they decried “illegal immigration.”
Timothy Ryan, who said he is the president of the Peace region chapter of Soldiers, refused to speak to CBC for this story, citing what he called CBC’s “absolutely despicable” previous coverage. He described the Soldiers as “citizens who go above and beyond to make sure their community’s low-income, vulnerable and less fortunate get what they need.”
In December, Ryan posted a long rant on Facebook where he said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was guilty of “domestic terrorism.” He accused Trudeau of bringing in “10s of thousands of unemployable refugees,” adding “his fake refugees get better health care than Canadians do.”
City’s evolving response
The CBC previously approached Dawson Creek city hall about people’s concerns regarding the Soldiers of Odin.
In a statement in December, Mayor Dale Bumstead said, “the three, four individuals have not given me any reason to be concerned about their interactions in our community.” Bumstead said he based his assessment of the number of Soldiers members on his own encounters with the group at a town hall meeting and during the Take Back the Night march.
He emphasized that “we as a society and communities should be looking at inclusivity, acceptance and support” of all citizens in “building healthy communities.”
In a more recent CBC interview, Bumstead was more forceful. “We were very clear about denouncing any message, any organization, any group that’s going to promote hate within our community.”
He said the city has extended an invitation to the Soldiers to hear why its members felt it necessary to establish a presence in Dawson Creek, but has not heard back.
When presented with Ryan’s Facebook rant, Bumstead said, “Our country is built on diversity and we should be welcoming and encouraging diversity in our communities.”
The local RCMP had nothing to add to its comments in October. The RCMP’s national headquarters declined an interview on the subject. In a statement to CBC News it said it does not investigate movements or ideologies, “but will investigate the criminal activity of any individuals who threaten the safety and security of Canadians.”