Tension ran high in downtown Winnipeg on Sunday, as a rally against an MP’s motion to condemn Islamophobia drew a large crowd of counter-protesters outside city hall.
The rally against Motion 103 was organized by the Soldiers of Odin Canada, a group with a name and symbol that closely resembles a European anti-immigrant organization. The Canadian group claims on its Facebook page that it is “here to help any Canadian in need regardless of race, colour or creed.”
However, those at the rally in Winnipeg were primarily white men wearing sunglasses and, in many cases, bandanas over their faces.
“We”re just here to have everybody”s voices heard equally,” one Soldier of Odin protester told CTV Winnipeg. The man wore dark sunglasses, a bandana over his face, a UFC baseball cap and a leather Soldiers of Odin jacket, with “President” written on the right breast.
“All we want is freedom of speech for everybody over here so that you can say what you want about something and not have to worry about somebody charging you or arresting you,” another of the Solider of Odin protesters, who did not wear a mask, told a gathering of reporters.
Counter-protesters followed the Soldiers of Odin throughout their rally, shouting pro-refugee and pro-immigrant slogans at them.
“Our movement is just building,” pro-immigration activist Omar Kinnarath told CTV Winnipeg. “They are trying to recruit white power and stuff here, (and) we are not going to let that happen.”
“We are very angry about it and we want to let them know about it,” said Jon Benson, another protester against the Soldiers of Odin.
Amid some occasional shoving and plenty of intense shouting, police kept the peace between the two groups.
The scene was similar to others that have played out across the country recently. Earlier this month, opposing groups rallied on both sides of the M-103 debate in Montreal. Similar protests have taken place in Calgary, Regina, Vancouver and Toronto.
On March 8, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau encouraged Canadians to condemn Islamophobia during a speech in the House of Commons.
“If M-103, condemning Islamophobia, actually gets people to notice that there are people (who are) uncomfortable with the idea, that there are people who still have problems with the idea that we would condemn discrimination against Muslims, then we have to know,” Trudeau said. “We have to expose that and we have to deal with it as a society.”
In the U.S., the Anti-Defamation League has labelled the Soldiers of Odin an “extreme European anti-refugee group.” The symbol for the group”s U.S. chapter features a Viking in a horned helmet, with an American flag used as a bandana to cover his face.
The Soldiers of Odin Canada symbol is nearly identical, but with a Canadian flag instead of an American one.
According to the ADL, the Soldiers of Odin movement originated in Finland during the European migrant crisis. “The group was founded in late 2015 by Finnish white supremacist Mika Ranta,” the ADL says. “The ostensible purpose of the group is to conduct vigilante “patrols” to protect Finnish citizens from the alleged depredations of refugees.”
Soldiers of Odin Canada has established chapters in several Canadian cities. The group”s B.C. chapter raised concerns last September when they started conducting “patrols” in the city. Police said they were monitoring the group, but saw no indication of illegal activity at the time.
With files from CTV Winnipeg