Any reporter would need a drink after the Soldiers of Odin


News | by Paul Dechene

REGINA—How did this happen? It’s barely two days since 200 white nationalists in Washington DC raised Nazi salutes to Richard Spencer, the man who coined the term “Alt-Right”, and here I am, interviewing the president of the Regina chapter of the Soldiers of Odin — a group that’s recently begun street patrols in our city.

Wikipedia, the Anti-Defamation League and most of the European press describe the Soldiers Of Odin as a racist, anti-immigrant organization with possible ties to neo-Nazism.

This article wasn’t supposed to go like this.

My original pitch was to write about everyone Trump’s election has emboldened in Canada. Like Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch, who’s riding high in the polls on the back of a promise to screen immigrants for “anti-Canadian values”, whatever those are.

But that was all derailed when our editor received a Facebook message about an incident I’d nearly forgotten.

“Last night,” went the message, “I was approached by one of your journalists for an interview on Soldiers of Odin in Victoria Park during our Remembrance Day service. I was very unimpressed as he smelt so bad of alcohol. I will not continue to have an interview with a company that conducts their business in such a matter [sic].”

Yes. I did approach Soldiers Of Odin’s Regina president Ryen Ward for an interview after his group’s Remembrance Day ceremony. I wasn’t technically working at the time. I only decided to check out the event because I happened to be close by and had my voice recorder handy.

But I should probably defend myself from this “smelling of alcohol” charge by saying that I’d only had one beer before speaking with Ward. I should do that. But I’d much rather inflate my own mythology by confessing that, when word came that the Soldiers Of Odin were congregating in the Queen City, I was sprawled backward on a Queen City bar, drinking directly from a draught tap. Then I rose, pounded three shots of Jameson’s and stormed out into the night, raging that I would confront the Vikings invading downtown.

Despite having so recently swilled a Valhalla-shaking quantity of alcohol, I thought my in-person interview with Ward went off amiably. That, for lack of a couple Tic-Tacs, I’d screwed myself out of a follow-up interview came as a surprise, frankly.

Fortunately, my editor smoothed things over and got me in touch with Ward through Facebook.

I’d read up on Soldiers of Odin since our first meeting and knew that while the group’s Finnish founder, Mika Ranta, admits to being a neo-Nazi, and while various media investigations have uncovered evidence of racist and anti-immigrant sentiment among many who claim membership with the Soldiers of Odin, members like Ward have been working hard to deny any connection to neo-Nazism or racist ideologies. Their claim is that the Soldiers of Odin are a benign street patrol group who just want to make their communities better.

Ward returns to this claim frequently over the course of our interview.

“If you want to write an article about us in Regina how ’bout you write one about the homeless people we help keep warm, the seniors we help… and that we are here to help any Regina citizen with anything they need help with,” he writes at one point, then adds later:

“We are not a hate group, we do not call for the death of anyone, or any culture or race, we educate ourselves and each other so we can properly communicate with other cultures in a respectful manner.”

He tells me how he’s a cancer survivor, how he’s of “mixed race” himself, how he’s befriended a Muslim Bangladeshi family who are new to the country and how he’s helping them acclimatize to our culture and our climate.

My questions, though, had less to do with his own professed anti-racism and more to do with how his group has been perceived. I point out the explicit connections between the Canadian Soldiers of Odin and the original Finnish group — a group founded by a neo-Nazi and widely seen as part of the larger European anti-immigration movement. And I point out how, historically, the other group who wedded street patrols and protecting national values with Nordic mythology were the actual Nazis.

That’s why in the decades following the Second World War, Viking imagery has been embraced by neo-Nazi and white-power groups.

“I am not accusing you of being a racist,” I explain at one point. “I am saying that this is the cultural context in which the Regina chapter of the Soldiers of Odin swims, and I’m curious as to why you would want to carry all this cultural, racist baggage if you’re really serious about being seen as welcoming and helpful?”

But as far as Ward is concerned, his group’s negative image has nothing to do with its founder, its connections nor its imagery. It’s all the fault of the lying media.

“The danger lies in the lies printed about us and the fear you evoke into your readers,” he writes. “For the last time, we are not racist.”

When our conversation moves to politics — specifically, Trump — Ward raises his concerns about immigration.

“Our problems occur with a lack of proper vetting system in which people coming into the country should receive a face to face interview. Very similar to Kellie Leitch’s idea,” he writes.

And when I press him on this, and on Black Lives Matter, this happens:

“I would like them [new immigrants] to be interviewed to [ensure] that they do not have anger or hatred, as ISIS [has] stated [that] they have infiltrated the refugee camps and [they’re] sending terrorists to North America through such lame processes that we just believe everything. I would like them to be interviewed on their beliefs of Sharia Law, and other such ideologies that do not fit into our Canadian laws or way of life.

“Black Lives Matter are not the only protestors/rioters that have caused discord in the USA. I am talking about all of the hate groups. From the KKK all the way to the Black Panthers and every group in between that calls for the death to another race.

“The fact that saying ‘all lives matter’ is considered racist.

“The fact that being proud of being white is racist.

“The fact that if you are multicultural but look white you are racist for saying you are multicultural.

“These are things that hate groups have caused.”

Where do you even begin? A thousand words untangling the misconceptions about how immigration works? A remedial history lesson on how outrageous it is to equate Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers with the KKK? Another essay on how calling “white” a race is every kind of fucked up?

Exhausted, this is where I tapped out.

One of the criticisms levelled at the Democrats after Trump’s election is that the Left failed to listen to the aggrieved voices of white America. Well, this was my attempt to more than listen — to open a dialogue. And I feel like Ward was either unable or unwilling to read most of what I sent to him.

“I feel like we’re speaking different languages,” I wrote to him in my sign-off. But that isn’t true. The language is the same and I think we can all hear those aggrieved white voices just fine.

It’s what they’re actually saying that’s the problem.

Paul Dechene covers City Hall for Planet S’ sister paper, Prairie Dog. He is not going all the way to Saskatoon to look for more Soldiers Of Odin.