Tent city in Nanaimo. Black Press file photo

Tent city in Nanaimo. Black Press file photo

Column: Quit scapegoating vulnerable people who are pressing for change

Where is the condemnation of far-right extremists like the Soldiers of Odin?

In his column last week, Tom Fletcher denounced the tent cities that have emerged in places including Nanaimo and Victoria, calling them “neighbourhood-invading squatter camps.”

He attempts to whip up rancor against activists like Chrissy Brett, an Indigenous woman who has been at the forefront of the fight against homelessness in Victoria.

Fletcher claims that Brett “constantly plays the Indigenous ‘stolen land’ card” in her activism. This seems to imply that no connection exists between the theft of Indigenous land – a historical fact in this province – and the disproportionate rate of homelessness among Indigenous people.

Look around in any urban centre in B.C. and it’s clear that First Nation people account for an outsized part of our homeless population.

In Nanaimo, for example, people with Indigenous ancestry account for roughly one-third of the homeless population, despite representing just six per cent of the city’s overall population, according to a homelessness survey conducted this year.

In this context, it’s no wonder that Indigenous activists like Brett push for immediate action on homelessness.

In particular, this feeling of urgency has led to the establishment of highly visible encampments like Nanaimo’s DisconTent City, which is reportedly B.C.’s largest, with about 300 residents.

It has also prompted provocative actions like the occupation of an empty, decommissioned school in Nanaimo earlier this month. This occupation resulted in the arrest of some 27 squatters. A school board official estimated that damage and clean-up would cost upwards of $100,000.

READ MORE: B.C. tent city campers break into empty elementary for ‘Schoolhouse Squat’

For Fletcher, this was an “atrocity” tantamount to “low-grade terrorism” carried out by “bullies.” These are strong words for a group of people who want to end homelessness.

As far as I’m concerned, if you’re looking for a bully in the tent city saga, look no further than the so-called Soldiers of Odin.

This right-wing vigilante organization, which has aligned itself against tent cities on Vancouver Island, is linked to neo-Nazis. These people thrive off of the scapegoating of vulnerable people such as immigrants and homeless people. Our worst words should be reserved for their ilk.

A few facts about the Soldiers of Odin: the group was founded in Finland a few years ago by an avowed white supremacist named Mika Ranta. He was quoted in the English newspaper the Daily Mail saying that “white supremacists are welcome to join the Odins.”

The Soldiers of Odin are considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an Alabama-based group that monitors extremism. Research by an online collective known as Anti-Racist Canada shows that the Soldiers of Odin are closely linked to overt white supremacists.

READ MORE: Soldiers of Odin confront supporters of B.C. tent city

Since 2015, chapters of the group have popped up like mushrooms around Europe, Australia and North America. Here on Vancouver Island, the group claims to have cut ties with its European counterparts, but they operate with the same name and emblem.

Members of the group took part in a protest against the tent city in Nanaimo this summer, saying they would act as a kind of security contingent for anti-tent city demonstrators. The group later claimed online that it would dismantle the encampment by force on Aug. 19.

This forced takedown turned out to be oafish posturing: the Soldiers of Odin didn’t show up, and Conrad Peach – the president of the Vancouver Island chapter – released a bizarre video online taunting activists who demonstrated in support of the encampment.

These events are disturbing because they’re happening amid an actual resurgence in violent neofascist activity across North America. In Canada, the most obvious example is Alexandre Bissonnette’s 2017 massacre in a Quebec City mosque.

Such events are literal atrocities, real acts of terror committed by people who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Soldiers of Odin. Where is the condemnation of these “neighbourhood-invading” groups on Vancouver Island?

People unhappy about the messy, unruly presence of tent cities or in their communities should realize that it’s a manifestation of deeply rooted problems of inequality. And they should quit scapegoating vulnerable people who are pressing for change.


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