Canadian papers are paying a lot of attention to newspaper owner Gustavo Valencia Gomez, who is charged with using all of the old tricks to convince a client that she was under supernatural attack, and that a large influx of money was necessary to remove the danger.
“The most frightening point, she alleged, was when she was told to bring pictures of her two children to an appointment. When eggs were cracked over them, there was blood in the yolks, she recalled, adding she was told this meant her children were marked for death. […] Another ritual involved putting lemon oil on her body. The oil turned black another sign of a curse, she said she was told. […] On another occasion, worms were used to scare her…”
This isn’t unique, it is, in fact, a pretty common con. Usually, when someone is caught running such a con they are charged with fraud, but Gomez’s case is garnering additional attention for an additional charge under Canadian law: Pretending to practice witchcraft.
“Early Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Gomez was arrested and charged with fraud over $5,000, false pretences, possession of the proceeds of crime and pretending to practice witchcraft, a summary (less serious) offence that carries no minimum or maximum penalties under the Criminal Code.”
Pretending to practice witchcraft? Yep. Here’s what the criminal code says about that.
365. Every one who fraudulently
- (a) pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration,
- (b) undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes, or
- (c) pretends from his skill in or knowledge of an occult or crafty science to discover where or in what manner anything that is supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found,
is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.
In recent years, some Canadian law enforcement agencies have taken a liking to this law, reviving it when dealing with fraud cases involving fortune telling and related services. However, its recent revival has been controversial, with some Pagans worried that these charges could be abused in the future.
“Brendan Myers, a pagan and philosophy professor at the Cégep Heritage College, worries that the law could be used against law-abiding pagans. “It may put people in my community at risk of not being able to practice their faith,” he said, adding that although the law has not been abused in the past, but he worried it could be in the future. The law only targets people who purport to practice witchcraft, but there are no equivalent laws for charlatans that abuse other faiths, he said.”
When I first reported on this relatively obscure statute, Myers explained why he found the law deeply problematic.
“The key word in the legislation is the word “pretending” (in subsections (a) and (c).) As pointed out to me by my friend in London via private correspondence: the word “pretending” here suggests that the State does not believe that witchcraft could be real: anyone who says they are practicing witchcraft is only pretending. That can potentially include those who say that they are practicing the religion. With this in mind, it’s not difficult to imagine a religiously conservative or puritan judge ruling that anyone who practices the religion of Wicca is “pretending” to practice witchcraft.
Our religious practices are already protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is part of our constitution and thus trumps the Criminal Code. But a lot will depend on the eye of the beholder here. It is not difficult to imagine a future government much more conservative than our present one, declaring that witchcraft and wicca is not a religion, and that anyone who practices it is “pretending”. Remember, it doesn’t matter if you think it’s a religion: it matters if the law thinks so. I do not know if any judicial precedents have established wicca and witchcraft as a religion in the eyes of the law. So I’ve written to a lawyer that I know, and I await his response.”
Police will often lay fraud charges, but L’Heureux said the witch law aids them in their investigation by helping them narrow in on that specific kind of fraud from the beginning. The law separates witches, like herself, who use the power of the nature and universe and offer spiritual advice, from charlatans who “pretend to be something they’re not for monetary gain, exploiting people’s weaknesses.”
Perhaps, but I’m troubled that the open-ended nature of the law’s language could invite abuse. Also, do we really want to open the door into deciding who is and isn’t a “real” Witch? Back in 2010 I made clear my reservations with this law’s revival.
“It should be stressed that all the accused perpetrators were caught and charged with existing laws against fraud, so why has this little-used witchcraft charge been dug up again? What real purpose does it serve other than to sensationalize, muddy the waters of religious freedom, and create potential problems for ethical practitioners of magic and witchcraft who happen to charge for various services? How long before an otherwise ethical magic-worker gets charged due to a vindictive former client? It doesn’t seem so far-fetched a scenario considering the recent frequency this law is getting invoked.”
Fraud needs to be punished, but in a Canada where the rights of Witches and Pagans aren’t always treated with respect and dignity, do we really want to simply trust that this law will always be used fairly? Laws that create blurry boundaries can be problematic even in the best of times, and I’m uncomfortable with any government body deciding when someone is really a Witch, or if they’re merely pretending.