The Soldiers of Odin, a European organization that has been dubbed "an extreme anti-refugee group" by the Anti-Defamation League, has begun setting up shop in Canada — but local leaders say they're not affiliated with white power.
After sparking controversy in Hamilton, Ont., earlier this summer, the group has formed a chapter in Edmonton.
About 10 men, all wearing matching insignia on their backs, a Norse horned helmet with a Canadian flag for a beard, have been seen patrolling the city's streets at least twice, on July 23 and Aug. 28.
While some see them as protectors, others consider them glaring examples of the worst in society.
As a response to the influx of refugees, the group was founded in late 2015 in Finland by Mika Ranta, a self-proclaimed white supremacist. Since that time it has become international, with local chapters forming in cities and provinces across Canada this year.
According to social media posts by the group, marches have also taken place in B.C. and Ontario.
The group's bylaws state their goal is to take back the streets, and patrols are their way of doing that.
Insp. Dan Jones said the Edmonton Police Service is aware of the Soldiers of Odin, but hasn't received any complaints.
"At this stage, we have a group of people that have associated [themselves] with a group that are internationally extremely negative," Jones said. "In the city of Edmonton context that we have right now, we have seen no violence, no complaints, no threats, nothing criminal."
Jones said police have spoken to the group.
"They are reporting they are not the same type of group, that they are not anti-immigration or radical right."
Jones said the group described itself as a guardian angel-type group focused on volunteerism.
'If they are the Soldiers of Odin like they are in Europe, we are going to be very concerned.' - Insp. Dan Jones
"If they are the Soldiers of Odin like they are in Europe, we are going to be very concerned," Jones said. "But at this stage, we don't have any reason to believe they have engaged in criminal activity."
According to their bylaws, members see themselves as a "non-racist conservative organization that seeks to keep Canadians safe in their daily activities."
Those same bylaws, however, lament a federal government that accepts "refugees from countries that hate us" and lets "illegal aliens" into the country, giving them "the ability to vote and drive."
"People think we're some sort of white power group," Joel Agnott, the SOO national president, told CBC News in early August. "We're not affiliated with any of that. We have had a few of those members, and we've kicked them out."
The bylaws state the group believes "in protecting the streets with observe-and-report-style patrols, and if necessary to come to the defence of anyone who may need us. We are the eyes and ears of the police in places that the police cannot always be."
The group has said it wants to co-operate with local law enforcement.
Angott said the group supports "sustainable immigration" and calls on the government to thoroughly screen new immigrants, and ensure newcomers "want to come in and follow Canadian law."
"We don't want people coming in and pushing any kind of agenda on Canada," he said.
In an emailed statement sent to CBC on Saturday, Angott said the marches are "a neighbourhood watch-based activity, with a focus on the safety of women, children and the elderly."
He added that the majority of the members spend their time checking for "hazards and unsafe conditions" in parks and playgrounds, and also identifying obstacles for "people with mobility issues."
Angott said the group is "here for all Canadian citizens" and recognizes Canada as a multicultural mosaic.
An early version of the original Soldiers of Odin's now-defunct website reads: "Islamist intruders cause insecurity and increase crimes," Reuters reports. Members in Finland have carried placards that read "Migrants not welcome."
The Finnish Soldiers of Odin have nearly identical bylaws as the Canadian chapters.
Social media diatribe
The ADL, a civil rights organization, has said that U.S. groups, much like the Canadian chapter, claim to be staunchly non-racist, but "the official stance of the group and the beliefs of the group's membership and supporters are two very different things."
The group's main Facebook pages in Canada express strong anti-Islamic sentiments.
In early August, the page posted a long diatribe about how there is a "fundamental contradiction" between being a devout Muslim and "respecting the countries of the world."
"Muslims advance a definition that Islam is a shining beacon against the darkness of repression, segregation, intolerance, and racism," it reads. "Nothing could be further from the truth!"
When it comes to racism, actions speak louder than words, said Irfan Chaudhry, a criminology instructor and hate crime researcher at MacEwan University.
'At the end of the day, these groups are coming together because of what they perceive to be an infestation of other groups.' - Irfan Chaudhry
"It's obviously veiled, but it's very transparent in terms of what they're actually trying to do. It does definitely have anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-coloured folk sentiment that does fuel a lot of the rhetoric," Chaudhry said.
"At the end of the day, these groups are coming together because of what they perceive to be an infestation of other groups."
Chaudhry said intimidation is certainly a goal of patrols such as these.
"It's troubling to hear about anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim groups engaging in so-called street patrols," the National Council of Canadian Muslims told CBC News in a statement.
"We would call on the local police authorities to monitor such activities closely and to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of local residents. We know that Canada is a safe, welcoming country, which prides itself on its diversity."
'Can easily be considered a hate group'
The ADL is blunt in its assessment of the group.
"An examination of the members and supporters of Soldiers of Odin USA leaves no room for doubt: though not all such adherents of the group are white supremacists or bigots, so many of them clearly are that the Soldiers of Odin can easily be considered a hate group."
The report said there are four typical types of members of the Soldiers of Odin: white supremacists, Norse pagans, anti-Muslim bigots and anti-government extremists.
But Agnott said the ADL holds a "Draconian misperception" of the group.
"They [ADL] represent themselves as a benevolent organization, but in fact their actions demonstrate otherwise," Angott said. "While we are out working to better our communities and cities making them safe and accessible, they scrutinize our activities and motives, calling us out as racists."
Both Chaudhry and the ADL say social media allows for the spread of such groups. Chaudry said the impact of the internet is two-fold.
"I think the power of social media relies on how we share it," Chaudhry said. "When it is visible and we're able to track it, it allows us to feel we do not want this to shape who we are. It gives us the opportunity to resist, both online and even offline."
That sentiment is reiterated by Jones. He said certain media outlets worldwide spread racially divisive information that can be widely shared.
"Those divisive racial reports, I truly believe, are allowing groups on every side of the coin to recruit and grow in strength and numbers," Jones said.
"My concern is that, instead of being good allies in the community where we need to all band together regardless of our race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and be allies for each other, we're allowing some of this stuff in a geopolitical environment to really fracture our society."