Soldiers of Odin appear at tense standoff as homeless squatters occupy Nanaimo school
This story has been updated with the identity of the Soldiers of Odin member.
The occupation of a shuttered Nanaimo elementary school by homeless campers grew into a tense standoff Friday night.
Several dozen members of the soon-to-be evicted Discontent City homeless camp broke into to Rutherford Elementary School, declaring it the “Schoolhouse Squat” on Friday afternoon.
However, by early evening more than 100 people, including members of the group “The Soldiers of Odin” (SOO), had shown up.
“We’ve come down here to get the police to take some action. I mean look at these people, do you think they’re happy?” said Soldiers of Odin Vancouer Island president Conrad Peach.
The Canada Border Services Agency describes the SOO as a group of Caucasian men, mostly under 40, some of whom adhere to a far-right ideology and who are not afraid to use violence.
The group shares its name with a Finnish anti-immigrant group, but members deny links to neo-Nazi organizations or biker gangs, instead portraying themselves as an outfit devoted to community safety.
The SOO turned up at a previous Discontent City protest earlier this summer, and members of the Vancouver chapter have clashed with anti-racism protesters in the past and marched outside a Surrey mosque.
Many other members of the crowd Friday night were angry local residents, like mother Ann Gibson.
“It’s trespassing. I don’t agree with it at all. I believe there’s a time and place for everything and this is not the time and this is not the place,” she said.
“I don’t have the answer to the homeless solution, I really don’t, but this is not it.”
WATCH: Judge grants injunction against Nanaimo tent city
The elementary school is vacant. It was closed at the end of the last school year, after the district voted to shutter it back in 2015.
Squat spokesperson Amber McGrath said members of the evicted tent city took the school to highlight Canada’s “collective punishment to homeless people,” and were willing to risk arrest.
“When you’re sent out into the bush in the winter that’s a death sentence. When people are drug users and we’re in a opioid crisis, and people aren’t allowed to stick together and end up using alone, they die,” she said.
“We know that. So stigmatizing and criminalizing people and sending them out, that’s a death sentence.”
Discontent City campers were served with a BC Supreme Court injunction last month, and given three weeks to vacate their camp by the Nanaimo waterfront. The deadline on that injunction is Saturday, Oct. 12.
Campers had been at the Discontent City site for about five months, in an occupation that led to several heated confrontations with local residents.
Demonstrators say the city has offered up fewer than 70 shelter beds for the estimated 300 evicted campers, and that the rest are expected to camp in parks by night and pack up their belongings every morning.
Nanaimo RCMP spokesperson Const. Gary O’Brien said police had no plans to arrest any of the squatters on Friday night, and were on scene to keep the two groups apart.
“We are certainly monitoring that and keeping the waters calm, throughout the evening we’re expecting that crowd to dissipate as the hours progress,” he said.
O’Brien said police were hoping to engage the squatters in a dialogue and were looking for a peaceful resolution.
As for the Soldiers of Odin, he said police were aware of the group, but not singling it out.
“Of course they’re attracting our attention because of their reputation, but they’re like everyone else. They’re allowed to voice their objection but nobody’s moving within a certain distance of the building.”
Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said the school is not on city property, but that he was not happy to see the move.
“We’re certainly disappointed that they have made a decision now to violate other private property,” McKay said.
On Friday, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Selina Robinson announced the province had bought land at 250 Terminal Avenue to deliver “80 units of temporary workforce modular housing,” and that the city had provided land at 2020 Labieux Rd. for another 90 units of “temporary housing.”
“We want to facilitate an end to the tent city by getting people into safe and stable homes as soon as possible. The workforce modular housing has been purchased and is on its way to Nanaimo, and both projects will be open by late November 2018,” said Robinson in a statement.
The Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District, which owns the school, could not be immediately reached for comment.
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