In the early evening darkness, four figures huddled in the parking lot of a Quebec City arena, all wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with a drawing of Odin, the Norse god of war.
One was a professional hunter, another a wood-factory worker. They stomped their boots in the cold, shared a cigarette or two, then set off to patrol the historic streets of the city, armed only with a flashlight and the belief they were protecting Quebecers from a vague but dangerous threat.
Leading the group that night was a 47-year-old father of four, Dave Tregget, who paints cars by day, but on evenings and weekends was in charge of the Quebec chapter of Soldiers of Odin.
“We are Canadians helping Canadians,” said Tregget as he steered the group through St-Roch, a neighbourhood where urban renewal meets poverty in Quebec City.
“I want to protect our Canadian charter of rights and liberties. We’ve got to fight to keep these rights.”
When Tregget joined the Soldiers of Odin last year, the group had barely a half-dozen members in Canada. It was little known outside of northern Finland, where it patrolled, claiming to protect locals from Muslim immigrants.
But the group grew quickly, first to the rest of Finland, then to other Nordic and Baltic countries. There are now more than 20 national chapters, including one in Australia.
In Canada, the Soldiers of Odin met with criticism as they established themselves across the country.
Its patrols in Edmonton, for instance, were described as “troubling” by the National Council of Canadian Muslims. A city councillor in Hamilton accused them of spreading hate speech.
Tregget felt the group’s success in Quebec depended on softening its anti-immigration image and putting some distance between the founding Finnish members, who have been accused of having ties with neo-Nazis.
“We’re Canadian and Canada was based on immigration so we cannot be against it,” Tregget said, marching the group up Langelier Boulevard on a Tuesday night in early December.
Torn between the group’s hardline roots and the prospect of growing its membership in Quebec, Tregget chose the latter.
It was a position that proved untenable, but we’ll get to that later.
Online, and in the streets
The Soldiers of Odin claim to have around 3,500 members in Canada, 400 of them in Quebec.
Other far-right groups in the province, such as La Meute and the Justiciers du peuple, are mainly active online. The Soldiers of Odin distinguish themselves by maintaining an active presence in the community, especially in Quebec City.
They have, since February, organized patrols through various neighbourhoods, sometimes as many as three or four times a week.
They also attracted attention by providing security at a demonstration outside the National Assembly in October, which was attended by several other far-right groups in the province.
And it has teamed up on a number of occasions with Atalante Québec, an openly neo-fascist organization that speaks of protecting the “neo-French.”
The two groups joined forces for a food drive last month and jointly patrolled the Laval University campus after a spate of sexual assaults there in October.
Keeping the Soldiers of Odin active and political was, according to Tregget, its chief selling point over groups like La Meute.
Uniting the (far) right
But as leader of the Quebec chapter, Tregget didn’t simply want to compete with these groups, but to forge alliances with them.
“What we’ve aimed for since we started Soldiers of Odin is to unite all the groups of what we’ll call the ‘far right’ because our common denominator is the system,” he said.
The system, for Tregget, can mean many different things. But it generally refers to a socio-political situation whereby “the people” are systematically deprived of power by “elites.”
The system, moreover, favours individualism at the expense of community, it favours importing oil from Saudi Arabia as opposed to building pipelines in Canada and, perhaps above all, is incapable of protecting “Canadian values.”
“Without saying that we’re being threatened right now, we’ve got to watch ourselves,” he said.
“People are trying to push their own agenda on us, which goes against our Canadian values.”
To underscore that point, Tregget pointed to a religious sanctuary carved into the cliff that separates upper and lower Quebec City.
“F**k les whites” was stencilled neatly in red on the monuments.
Less than five per cent of Quebec City’s population considers themselves to be a visible minority, according to the 2011 census. And there are only 27,000 immigrants in the city of 500,000.
But the graffiti, which first appeared several weeks ago, has nevertheless unnerved local residents, Tregget said. He called it “a hate message.”
‘We bring people together’
Among those Tregget recruited to take part in the patrol that night was another family man, a factory worker from the Beauce, a rural area south of Quebec City. He makes the two-hour round trip into Quebec City several times a week to take part in Soldier of Odin activities.
The professional hunter, Sébastien Vaudreuil, said he only became interested in politics two years ago when, watching the news, he sensed the world was starting to go awry.
Asked what his friends thought of his involvement with the Soldiers of Odin, Vaudreuil shrugged.
“I’m closed off. I’m a trapper. More often than not I’m in the middle of the woods and I do my own thing.”
The appeal of joining the group is that it gives a sense of purpose to people who would otherwise be lost in society, who don’t identify with any of the existing political parties, said Tregget.
“We bring people together,” he added. “We want to show people community is important.”
But as Tregget was busy building the group’s membership he was also running afoul of the national leadership as well as the movement’s international leaders in Finland.
According to his one-time second-in-command, Tregget gave a series of interviews in the fall in which he downplayed the links between the Finnish and Quebec branches of the group.
He also insisted on patrolling the “political correct” areas of Quebec City, like St-Roch, where the group was less likely to confront the city’s immigrant population, said Katy Latulippe, who is now the acting president of Soldiers of Odin-Quebec.
There are conflicting accounts of what, precisely, happened. Latulippe said Tregget was suspended. Tregget said he quit: “Finished with the racist image of Finland,” he later told CBC News in a Facebook message.
Regardless of the details, what is clear is that with Tregget out, and Latulippe in, the group’s Quebec chapter will undergo a reorientation.
Back to the Finnish roots
Latulippe is still a relatively newcomer to Quebec City, having moved there recently from Magog, Que.
A welder by trade, she’s not yet familiar with the names of the various neighbourhoods in the city. She knows, though, the chief demographic characteristic of the area where she feels the Soldiers of Odin should be making its presence felt.
“Dave avoided that, on patrols, we go into areas where there are a lot of Muslims or Islamization,” she said during a recent phone conversation.
“But, when it comes down to it, that’s where we should be patrolling.”
After asking her boyfriend, she learned the area she has in mind is Vanier, a borough in the northwestern part of the city that has a large immigrant population.
As Tregget and his fellow Soldiers marched past the trendy cafés of St-Roch, few pedestrians seemed to notice them. Chantal Gilbert, the area’s city councillor, had never heard of the group before being contacted by a CBC reporter.
That relative anonymity among the general public may change if Latulippe goes ahead with her plan to organize more confrontational patrols.
Won’t allow ‘mayhem’ in the streets
The goal, she said, is not to intimidate Muslim immigrants but rather make them aware of Quebec values.
“We won’t allow them to bring mayhem to our streets and the gang rapes that we’re seeing in certain countries currently,” she said. “That’s all we want to do.”
Latulippe’s desire to return the Quebec branch of the Soldiers of Odin to its Finnish roots may complicate its effort to forge alliances with other far-right groups in the province.
On its Facebook page, the leaders of La Meute informed its 43,000 members that they would be distancing themselves from the group.
“La Meute would never want to associate itself with a group headed by white neo-Nazi supremacists,” La Meute’s spokesman Sylvain Maikan wrote earlier this week.
“Given that the Quebec branch has itself announced its closer ties with the Finnish group, it’s now clear that all association between our two groups will be impossible.”
As for Tregget, he initially intended to take a break from political activism following his split from Soldiers of Odin.
But, he said, his phone started ringing soon afterward.
He has decided to start a new group with other disenchanted members. Its working title is “Storm Alliance.”
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