A photograph of Windsor's mayor and police chief posing with the president of the local chapter of the Soldiers of Odin is being hailed by one expert as a "propaganda victory" for the controversial group critics denounce as anti-Muslim and anti-immigration.
"It's part of a larger pattern we can see the Soldiers of Odin engaging in. It's trying to legitimize their vigilantism as being seen as a member of the community that's supported by law enforcement," said Yannick Veilleux-Lepage, a Ph.D. candidate at the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
"It's a cautionary tale definitely because what was handed over there was a nice propaganda victory for Soldiers of Odin in many ways. It has legitimized their presence to some extent."
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The photo was taken during the community walk on the Ganatchio Trail Oct. 15, which was organized by the mayor's office in support of 75-year-old Anne Widholm, who was savagely attacked there the week before.
Hundreds of people turned out for the walk including Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens, Windsor police chief Al Frederick and James Godden, who identifies himself on Facebook as "The Essex County President Of The Soldiers of Odin."
The photo, posted to Godden's Facbook page, shows Godden flanked by a smiling Dilkens and Frederick, his arms draped over their shoulders. Godden is wearing a black vest with the patches and colours of the Soldiers of Odin.
'Not interested in posing for photos like that'
Dilkens said Godden was "very polite" when he introduced himself at the walk and that he and the police chief agreed to his request for a photo. Dilkens stressed he did not know of Godden's affiliation and that he took more than a dozen other photos with residents that day.
"We don't do background checks before we take photos with people at public events," said Dilkens. "I'm not interested in appearing like I'm supporting any group that's going to be disrespectful to my community. If I know in the future and it's obvious, I'm not interested in posing for photos like that."
Frederick declined to speak with CBC about the photo. He said through a spokesperson that he was unaware of Godden's affiliation with the group and that he "was photographed by and with hundreds of members of the public" during the event.
"Would he on purpose do that or is this any indication of a support of this organization? Absolutely not," said Sgt. Steve Betteridge.
Group opposes illegal immigration
Sudbury's police chief Paul Pederson apologized in August after his picture was taken with several members of the Sudbury chapter of Soldiers of Odin during the unveiling of an organ donor monument. Sudbury Coun. Gerry Montpellier also had his picture taken with the group and that photo was posted to Facebook.
The Soldiers of Odin was founded in late 2015 in Finland. Chapters have been opening across Ontario but members have said they have severed ties with the European wing. The group bills itself as a "non-racist, conservative organization that seeks to keep Canadians safe," according to bylaws posted online, and believes the government is "failing the Canadian citizens" by "allowing illegal aliens into this country" and accepting "refugees from countries that hate us."
Godden told CBC Windsor he attended the walk in support of Widholm because he felt the attack was a "despicable act" but did not respond to repeated messages asking for more information about the size of the local chapter, its political beliefs and its activities.
'Huge PR victory for the Soldiers Of Odin'
Warren Kinsella, who wrote an account of Canada's far right movement and who has just published a fiction novel set against that backdrop, said groups like the Soldiers of Odin deliberately take photos with public figures to normalize their movement.
"They're saying 'we're not a threat, we really couldn't be a threat if the mayor posed for a photo with us," said Kinsella. "It's a huge PR victory for the soldiers of Odin."
The president of the Sudbury chapter told CBC News in August the Canadian arm of the organization had severed ties with the European wing because they do not hold the same strong anti-refugee and anti-immigration ideologies. The national president told CBC Hamilton last year that it was not a "white power group" and had actually kicked out members who leaned that way.
Veilleux-Lepage confirmed the non-Quebec Canadian chapters are largely no longer affiliated with Finland but says the divide had more to do with membership dues than ideology.
"There's still a strong slant toward anti-immigration within the Canadian soldiers of Odin," he said.
'No excuse' for photo: Kinsella
Kinsella concurred and added the group could easily disavow racist ideology by denouncing the founders and organizing under another name.
He blasted Dilkens and Frederick for allowing themselves to be photographed in such a compromising situation.
"There is no excuse for people at that level, with that kind of responsibility, with the number of staff they've got to allow themselves to be put in that situation," he said." All across Canada other mayors and other police chiefs know who the Soldiers of Odin are. They've been linked to intimidation, they've participated in anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rallies."
Chapters in other Canadian cities do patrols and park clean-ups and Veilleux-Lepage said the members of the organization share both a "strong ethnic nationalism" along with a "genuine desire to give back to the community."
Kinsella called the good works campaigns "a lot of spin and dishonesty" meant to soften the group's hard line politics.
"Nobody should be fooled," said Kinsella. "They're bad guys. They are anti-immigrant, they're anti-refugee, they are basically against anyone who isn't white, male and far right."