Sons of Odin doing park and street patrols - a presence not welcomed by everyone

"We're not here to start a fight," says Russ Bingham, a Hamilton roofer who is also the head of Sons of Odin Canada.

'We're not here to start a fight,' says group leader, while Green calls them the 'beginning of fascism'

"We’re not here to cause problems," says Russ Bingham, High King of Sons of Odin. "That’s not what it’s about." The group's detractors are skeptical. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

It looks like a typical warm late spring evening at Central Park in downtown Hamilton. But on this Thursday night, the tension is palpable.

They're all good people. You'll see.- Russ Bingham , High King of Sons of Odin Canada

On one side, a dozen Sons of Odin members stand in a cluster, wearing gloves and holding trash bags. Many wear standard issue black shirts with a white Viking logo on the back. A couple of kids run in circles around them.

About 80 metres away, near the playground equipment, stand five opponents, including members of Hamilton Against Fascism. A couple have their arms crossed. Two police officers drift through on bicycles.

This is becoming the new normal in Hamilton: the presence of a Viking-inspired group whose mandate includes fighting the spread of Shariah law in Canada, and people who warn they're a racist, corrosive presence that needs to be stopped.

Sons of Odin formed in February, and already, they've done several Hamilton park clean ups and three late-night downtown patrols. Russ Bingham, a Hamilton roofer and High King of Sons of Odin Canada, says there are about 30 Sons of Odin in Hamilton, and nearly 800 in multiple chapters across Canada.

"They're all good people. You'll see," he said as he walked through Central Park, located north of Cannon Street between Bay and Hess, with a trash bag. "They're like family. A lot of us work together."

Sons of Odin members arrive at Central Park in downtown Hamilton to clean up the park. The group's leader says it's a community-minded service organization, albeit one that wants to prevent the spread of Sharia law. Others say such groups are a step toward fascism. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The late-night patrols, Bingham said, are to distribute "water and granola bars" to homeless people and make sure everyone's OK. They've picked up trash twice at Sam Lawrence Park, he said, and come away with a dozen full garbage bags.

I don't know who these guys think they're going to keep safe. Safe from who? Safe from what?- Matthew Green

Still, there's a reason they're not called the Clean Park Brigade. The group's Ontario Facebook bio describes "out of control" immigration. "The need they have to 'take over' is also growing amongst the Muslim community already living in your country," it reads.

In a Facebook video after the Manchester bombing, Bingham responded to the notion of not associating all Muslims with terrorism.

"They say not to paint them all with the same paintbrush," he said. "But they are what they are. They read the same book. They have the same ideas. They're evil people, they're nasty people, and I don't want them in my country, to be honest with you."

'The beginning of what fascism looks like'

His message varied some on Thursday. The group had a small presence at a city hall rally earlier this year to protest the notion of Shariah law in Canada. That's what the group is worried about, he said.

"We don't care if Muslims are here. That's not what we're saying," he said. "We're not saying stop immigration. That's nothing to do with what we're saying at all. But Shariah law is scary stuff."

They do not intend to start and end with picking up trash.- Peter Clarke, Hamilton Against Fascism

The Sons of Odin say they are unrelated to the Soldiers of Odin,  a Finnish-born organization with a stated aim to "take back our streets," although Bingham said the two groups are friendly. 

This Sons of Odin, formed in Norway, also say they are unrelated to the motorcycle gang, the car club and Sons of Odin IC, he said.

Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor, isn't a fan. Patrols by such groups, he said, are "reminiscent of the Brownshirts in Nazi Germany."

"I don't know who these guys think they're going to keep safe," he said. "Safe from who? Safe from what?"

"This is what the beginning of fascism looks like."

'Areas that still need attention'

Peter Clarke, an organizer of Hamilton Against Fascism, said the same on Thursday. "They do not intend to start and end with picking up trash."

I'm not pretending that we don't have areas that still need attention.- Jason Farr

"They go out and act like boy scouts to try and gain sympathy in the community, but it's all in service of a xenophobic agenda."

Central Park, meanwhile, wasn't a random pick. It's not unusual to see needles, condoms, liquor bottles and other detritus there.

Needles, clothing and other items are a common occurrence at Central Park. The city is working on a master plan to renovate it. (Marsha Zatychies)

The city only has the budget to visit each park every seven working days, said Kara Bunn, manager of parks and cemeteries. In this park, she said, "garbage and needles are a regular occurrence."

At a neighbourhood Earth Day clean up, said Coun. Jason Farr, volunteers found a little shanty. "Clearly, someone was living there," he said.

"There's a lot of talk about these great things happening in the core," Farr said. "But I'm not pretending that we don't have areas that still need attention."

We're not here to start a fight.- Russ Bingham

This week, Marsha Zatychies posted photos on Facebook of dirty needles, broken glass, rolling papers and even a pair of boots there. 

Zatychies has no relation to the group, and had never even heard of them before this. She just wants the park clean.

"My intent from this whole thing wasn't to point fingers at anybody," she said. "It was to address a problem that needed fixing. I don't understand where the Sons of Odin came from."

"I have no idea what the group is about or stands for. To me, this is a multicultural park and the last thing I want to see is anybody at odds through trying to clean up this park."

'We don't look for problems'

The Sons of Odin were a day late anyway. City staff thoroughly cleaned the park the day before — before they'd even heard of Sons of Odin, Farr said.

Next year, the city will begin a million-dollar Central Park renovation, Farr said. The new version will include a splash pad, a fenced-in dog park and an updated design that will make it harder to shoot drugs there.

"I'm a little bit concerned if there's a feeling from a radical type group such as them to insert whatever authority they may assume to have on an issue that, for now, has already been resolved," he said.

Bingham said that's not what he's about. As he spoke, he pointed out an Indigenous member who had come to help clean up the park.

"We're not here to start a fight," he insisted. "We don't look for problems."

samantha.craggs@cbc.ca | @SamCraggsCBC