Pagan shop owner feels targeted, ignored in Canada

Terence P Ward —  March 9, 2017 — 39 Comments

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Until she turned to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation last week, Dominique Smith did not feel like she was being heard. Now, the story of her Pagan-themed shop being vandalized is repeatedly being shared widely, and she’s found allies in Pagan communities. What she’s yet to gain, however, is an investigation of these incidents as hate crimes.

Smith owns Elemental Book & Curiosity Shop in Winnipeg, the provincial capital. It caters to the needs of local Pagans and polytheists, but she’s also become an “unintentional social worker,” pointing locals to resources for addiction, food insecurity, and other issues.

elemental-logofile

She’s been told that her issues might have more to do with poverty in the area, but she disagrees. “We’re open about who we are,” in the store, she said, and Winnipeg is “in a Bible belt.”

Harassment of a religious nature started almost immediately after the doors were opened, some six or seven years ago. Smith recalled being handed Chick tracts and finding pamphlets in the door decrying the Pagan nature of the Easter bunny. There are also reports that people will come to the shop just to pray for her soul.

The business improvement zone, in which Smith’s store is located, has a security team which handles that sort of thing.

But the issues didn’t escalate to outright vandalism until 2012, which saw the first of three times the store’s window was broken. No other businesses have reportedly had damage during that same period.

Sable Aradia picked up Smith’s banner, writing on her blog, “She can’t afford to replace her windows, which cost thousands of dollars, every year. If the bullies who are attacking her store are trying to drive her out of business because they don’t like what she’s selling, they’re succeeding.”

Dominique Smith [courtesy photo].

Dominique Smith [courtesy photo].

Damage like this has led to police reports being filed, but Smith told The Wild Hunt, “If I had called them every time I was harassed, it would have been hundreds of phone calls.”

The store has been egged, garbage has been shoved through the mail slot, and one night an enterprising individual covered the entire front window with spit.

“It must have taken them ten minutes to do that,” she said.

Despite the fact that some of the harassment has had a distinct religious character and that no other businesses have been damaged, the vandalism has not yet being treated like a hate crime. This designation brings stiffer penalties, because it is believed that the perpetrator is targeting a particular, minority group of people.

There are several perspectives on why the harassment hasn’t been called a hate crime. The one that has elicited the strongest reaction was the reason suggested by a Winnipeg police spokesperson, who told a CBC reporter that “witchcraft is not covered under religion.”

Leaders of the Wiccan Church of Canada have been concerned with the hodgepodge of religious protection laws found from coast to coast for some years. In an article by Richard James posted on the church’s web site, the many ways that “religion” is interpreted are laid out. Federal recognition stems from the prison system, military, and tax collectors.

Only in the correctional system is recognition “established policy;” prisoners therefore have a stronger right to practice than soldiers, whose commanders may consider requests on a case-by-case basis. No Pagan organization has received the tax-exempt status as a charity.

Provincial policies govern other areas, such as who has the right to solemnize marriage. While the Canadian criminal code defines a hate crime as “one in which hate is the motive and can involve intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force against a person, a group or a property,” according to a CBC report, and that they have occurred when the perpetrator targets an “identifiable group based on colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation,” that deference to local interpretation may influence how police officers treat a particular case.

“Hate crime legislation is harsh in Canada, which is likely why the police are so reluctant to invoke the legislation,” wrote Aradia, “[B]ut it exists for a reason. If these laws were not created to protect people like the Pagans of Winnipeg, then who were they created to protect?”

[Dave Connor, Flickr]

[Image credit: Dave Connor, Flickr]

Kerr Cuhulain isn’t so sure that there’s anti-Pagan bias at work in this case. “Stereotypes abounded back in the ’70s when I first became a cop. That’s one of the reasons I engaged in 25 years of educating police.”

“Are there still individual police officers out there who are intolerant of religions other than their own? Of course there are, and probably always will be,” Kerr added. “Is that the problem here? I don’t have enough information to say one way or the other.”

Rather, he thinks it’s just hard to prosecute a hate crime without a suspect. “I spent 25 years travelling all over North America educating police and other public agencies about Pagan religions to counteract the misinformation that was circulating in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said.

“This resulted in me becoming recognized as an expert in hate crimes involving minority religions. I’ve seen a lot of cases of harassment.”

There are seven legally-defined discriminatory practices that could be deemed a hate crime if one of 11 grounds of discrimination is also present; that is the list on which “religion” is found.

To Cuhulain’s mind, police might be calling it premature to classify this as a hate crime simply because they don’t think there’s enough evidence to make it stick just yet.

Cuhulain added, “I always encouraged Pagan groups to contact their local police, introduce themselves, and build a working relationship. Has the victim or her community done this? I don’t know, but I suspect that if they had we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Communication has not exactly been open, Smith acknowledged, saying that police officers “have talked with news reporters more than they’ve spoken with me,” which has been not at all since the story broke.

A spokesperson from Winnipeg Police Services reached by email agreed to look into the matter, but as of this writing has not provided a requested clarification about how hate crime laws are enforced in the city.

“I don’t believe the average cop knows very much about hate crimes except in general terms,” said Cuhulain of the complex laws. “I had this knowledge because my community was on the receiving end of hate crimes back then.”

Reaction from Smith’s local and wider religious communities, on the other hand, has been “utterly overwhelming and shocking,” she said. Aradia’s petition for hate-crime treatment has racked up close to 600 signatures as of press time, and a crowdfunding campaign has all but reached its goal in just over a week.

Florida artist Matt Nelson is auctioning off works to support the store. Smith has also received “hundreds of messages” of support from Pagans. Neighbors have also stopped in to let her know that they are glad she’s doing business in the neighborhood, including one regular customer who “shoved a hundred in my hand. I wanted to cry.”

Whether these incidents are investigated as hate crimes or not, whether the perpetrators are caught or not, one thing has definitely changed: there is a renewed sense of community and vigilance in this Winnipeg neighborhood, a solidarity that includes, rather than excludes, the Witch and her esoteric shop. If winning hearts and minds is the goal, then Dominique Smith’s trials have at least allowed her to score a few.

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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • First, I’m glad to see this is getting attention. It’s been in my aggregator feed for two or three weeks from various sources, but more people need to know.

    Second, thanks for citing Kerr Cuhulain and recognizing the important work he has done over the years.

    I am concerned though. This is one thing that I thought might happen when I started reading about hate crimes back in the 1980s. A crime is a crime, it’s not somehow worse with motive attached to it. Kill someone, they are still dead. Vandalize their property, it’s still broken. But now by using the label hate crime, some crimes are more important than others.

    A crime against a Christian church would get the “proper” attention because it’s a “proper” faith as recognized by the government. Rather than focusing on the crime, the issue is now mainly why the crime didn’t get the “proper” label.

    Language is a tricky thing. Start modifying it and who knows where we’ll end up.

    ❝All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.❞

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Of course the law take motive into account. Motive is the difference between premeditated murder and negligent manslaughter.Hate crime laws are tacit admissions that societies have histories, and that some boundaries between socio-ethnic groups have such a history of violence that any transgression across those lines is a worse affront to the civil peace that similar transgressions that don’t cross those lines. Prosecution apart, the deeper issue for all of us is whether Wicca is recognized as a religion by those tasked with protecting minority religions from terrorism. The issue is not the proper label on the crime, it’s the proper label on the victims.”Some are more equal than others.” Irrelevant; a properly drawn hate crime law penalizes transgressions crossings these historic boundaries in either direction. Nobody is more equal that anybody else.

      • kenofken

        The question of whether Smith’s belief systems rank as a “real religion” to the Canadian government really ought not to have any bearing in this case. The intent of the perpetrator seems clearly motivated to target someone based on their perception that Smith has the “wrong” religion.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          That might be true on the philosophical plane but in a practical world the cops are likelier to be interested if this is a higher-penalty case. That’s not the way things ought to be but…

      • “Nobody is more equal that anybody else.”

        You just spent a whole post saying that some transgressions are worse than others.

        It’s not a crime because of religion. It’s not a crime because Wicca “should be” a recognized religion. It’s not a crime because so-and-so is a member of a designated victim group.

        It’s a crime because vandalism is a crime.

        Not because of the faith of the shop owner. Not because of what the store sells. It’s a crime because in Canada you can’t just break someone else’s property.

        That is what equality under the law is all about.

        Not special privileges because of the history of groups. But because breaking things is a crime, no matter what the motive and no matter who the victim is.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Repeating an opinion in bold face doesn’t make it valid.

          • It’s not an opinion. Vandalism is a crime.

            Not because of the skin color of the victim. Not because of the victim’s creed. And not because of the victim’s gender.

            When talking about it I chose emphasis, a stylistic choice. It’s highlighting what I think is a central point.

            Meanwhile, you lecture me on hate crimes while at the same time telling me that nobody is more equal than anyone else.

            I think you pegged the irony meter.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Go re-read my earlier answer. Unlike you, I don’t think validity increases through repetition.

          • It does when the other participant is dancing around and avoiding the subject.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Exactly what subject do you think I’m avoiding? (If it’s the innate evil of government, don’t bother.)

          • Nope.

            I’m still waiting for you to make the case how a hate crime is worse than a non-hate crime for the same “transgression.”

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I have already made that case in the first comment I posted in this thread, second paragraph. I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.An accusation of ignoring a subject I’ve addressed is dishonest discourse verging on the vicious. What you’re talking about is a not a subject, it’s an opinion; and I’m not ignoring it, I’m disputing it.

          • It’s a fact.

            Vandalism is a crime.

            You’ve yet to show how it’s worse for a certain group.

            Apparently you also haven’t thought through the implications. If it’s somehow worse for the Wiccans today, then tomorrow will it be worse for the Muslims? The day after, will we be arresting someone because they didn’t observe Good Friday or Juneteenth?

            Do you really want to tell people that they are permanent victims? That they can never succeed unless society steps in to help? That they can never, ever hope to be good enough on their own?

            I am so tired of looking at people locked into victimhood when they should be heroes. Overcoming obstacles is what makes you great, not legally enforced pity.

            Uniform rule of law. Equal before the law.

            You can’t do that if you make exceptions or special rules for special people.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I’m not disputing that vandalism is a crime all by itself. I’m claiming that burning a cross on a Black person’s lawn is a worse crime and deserves that classification. (We already have a system, degrees of felonies and misdemeanors, that can easily accommodate this.)Note I say “I’m claiming.” Clearly you disagree. But that doesn’t mean I’m ignoring your claim, nor that I have failed to explain to you why you’re wrong. Please refrain from burdening a clash of opinion with false claims of poor process on the part of others. will we be arresting someone because they didn’t observe Good Friday or Juneteenth?Now this is just horse puckey. Nobody is claiming a failure to observe Imbolc is a criminal offense against Pagans. Smashing someone’s window is.Again, your claim that I haven’t thought through the implications is lumbering a disagreement with false claims of faulty process. Enough with the alternative facts, NeoWayland!

          • As opposed to burning a cross on a atheist’s lawn? Or a Buddhist’s lawn? Or on a pagan’s lawn?

            Why is it worse?

            If it’s on my lawn, I will be seriously peeved. I will want justice. I might even deliver some justice on my own.

            There was a Chief Justice in Alabama who insisted that the Decalogue be displayed in his courtroom because there was a “law beyond man’s law.” I’ve had to deal with certain Christians who insisted that Christmas and Easter be made legal holidays where everyone had to take the day off. And I won’t tell you the messes I’ve had with the Pledge of Allegiance over the years. Meanwhile, right now there are Islamist groups (not Muslim, there is a difference) in the U.S. who are insisting that Shariah law applies not only to them but to everyone around them. Not so long ago there were pagans who insisted that Christians should be kept from voting. And then there was what Bill Nye said about people who disagreed with him about global warming.

            The point is obvious. Once you open the legal doorway and say that this victimhood is worse than that victimhood, then there is every incentive to reclassify the smallest “transgression” as the absolute worst “hate crime.” The rule of law disappears and the top of the victim hierarchy belongs to whoever makes the most noise. Everyone becomes a victim because it is the only way they see to get justice. From there it’s just a small jump to getting power through victimhood. Everyone’s a victim. No one is to blame. It’s always someone else’s fault.

            Exactly as is happening now. Right now, this very minute in America.

            A couple of weeks ago you and I had a long conversation about the Woman’s March. Out of all those ladies who marched, can you show me someone who thought of themselves as a hero and not as a terribly oppressed victim? Who among them had done something more than rant and organize more ranting?

            I’d argue that there are things far worse than hate. Indifference combined with efficiency for one.

            “Hate crimes” at best muddle the law and keep some from getting justice.

          • kenofken

            You seem to frame hate crimes laws, as many conservatives and libertarians do, as attempts to define victim and favored class hierarchies. This is in no small part because of liberals tendency to define the issue heavily in terms of “privilege” and oppressed classes.

            To me, hate crime laws are not about making classes of people “more equal” than others. They’re about recognizing and punishing a type of crime which is especially toxic to the health of a plural society.

            Whether the victim happens to be Muslim, Wiccan, atheist or LGBT, the crime in question is not “worse” for any of them relative to the other. The proverbial broken window holds roughly the same financial cost and sense of insult. When the victim is targeted because of who they fundamentally are – religion, race, etc., that crime, I would argue, becomes something more than the minor financial and public nuisance offense it. It becomes, in a very real sense, an element of or an act in furtherance of a larger crime, which is no less than a form of terrorism and assault on civil liberties.

            If a Jew, or Pagan, has their shop window broken because it happened to be a handy target or for theft. the experience sucks. When their window is broken BECAUSE they are a Jew or Pagan, and it happens repeatedly, they and all others like them in a given community are put in fear of their future. They are denied the freedom of their own country. For 30 years, there was an annual directory published called “The Negro Motorist Green Book.” It became an indispensable survival guide for African American drivers traveling in Jim Crow American. Black men who had fought Nazi Germany needed a list of safe houses in their own country. Let that sink in for a second.

            That’s the true nature of hate crimes, and why they are vastly different than the sometimes petty offenses which establish and enforce that regime of fear.

            It’s important to consider a couple of other dimension of hate crime laws. A crime does not become a hate crime simply because it touches members of some “protected class”. Police and prosecutors must prove that the crime was motivated by hate. That’s not an easy bar. When it’s met, it’s not a matter of mind reading. It’s usually blatant language or other strong evidence.

            Hate crimes are also not only about the protection of “victim” classes such as minorities. Minorities of course tend to be more vulnerable, but it also happens that people of “privileged” majority status can be targeted for racial, religious or sexuality reasons. Those are hate crimes as well. Here in Chicago back in January, four young African Americans were charged with hate crimes in the detention and torment of a young disabled white man.

          • Let’s look at what happened in this specific case.

            The two most likely possibilities are that the police don’t have enough resources for anything except the high profile cases or the only way that the shop owner feels that the police barely acknowledge a hate crime case unless it is from an officially sanctioned religion.

            In either case, having hate crime legislation on the books translates to less justice for the victim.

            Even here the argument has shifted. You and I agree that a crime was committed and that it should be punished. Where we don’t agree is if this is a special case that needs special treatment.

            Yet that’s what we’re talking about. Not about the crime. But whether it a) deserves special treatment and b)if the crime is getting special treatment.

            The actual crime is becoming less important than the “hate.”

            That’s what I worried about in the 1980s, and over thirty plus years that’s what I see happening again and again. The crime becomes less important than the hate. And by golly, we should pay attention to some hate much more than other hate. Certain people are just higher on the victim hierarchy than others. Let’s forget about preventing the crimes and just make sure we honor the victims.

            I want heroes.

          • kenofken

            I’m not sure how justice or even heroic virtue would be compromised if the police decided to investigate this as a possible hate crime. Broken windows by themselves just don’t get a lot of law enforcement resources. They’ll do a report the victim can maybe use in insurance claims and they’ll file it away. Arrest and prosecution are unlikely unless they happen to catch someone in the act.

            A hate crime, like any felony crime against a person, gets assigned to someone in a detective bureau and becomes an active investigation. Police agencies generally know who the town’s petty offenders are, who has a history of harassment or maybe mental illness fixated on religious themes. They can work leads, put a few cameras in the area, have a plainclothes officer spend a bit of extra time there etc. In one or more of these attacks, the offender spit all over the storefront. The idiot left their name and address written in DNA! They have a decent chance of catching someone.

            Failing that, the public knowledge that it’s being looked at as a hate crime may motivate the offender to lay off. Incurring fines, restitution and maybe community service for Jesus is one thing. Not everyone wants to do prison time for the cause. If an arrest is made, the decision to charge and prosecute on hate crime statutes is driven by the evidence or lack of it. Investigation as a hate crime would dedicate a level of resources which is not appropriate for a simple broken window but which is for what clearly seems to be a religiously motivated campaign of terror against a person.

            I’m not seeing the downside here, and it’s not because I’m unwilling to consider the possibility that there might be one.

          • So we’ve now established that some crimes aren’t worth investigating.

            Unless it’s a hate crime.

            The progression begins. Soon there’s no reason to report or investigate crime.

            Unless it’s a hate crime.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Alternative facts.

    • kenofken

      Some crimes are more important than others, and this has always been the case at least in systems derived from English law. Intent matters in weighing the severity of a crime. Intent is at the very core of our legal system. The victim of an involuntary or reckless homicide is just as dead as the victim of a serial killer, but the implications of the act and degrees of punishment are vastly different and have always been so. Stalking someone or violating a domestic order of protection is not (thankfully) treated anymore as simple trespass even though the underlying acts are the same. If intent did not matter, we would not put people in prison for murder or really anything else. We would just make them pay restitution to the victim, and the family of someone killed in an unforeseeable car accident would get the same payout as someone killed for sport or political gain.

      In criminal law, the injury to the direct victim is not the only consideration. The law attempts to gauge the damage of an act to society at large. An act done in the context of what we define as a “hate crime” takes on additional seriousness, not because the victim class is “more equal”, but because the implications for the social order are much more dire. The old Jim Crow South was not the hellhole for African Americans that it was simply because some white guys happened to murder some black guys over, say, money or love triangles etc. The immediate victim of such a murder is surely no better off personally than the victim of a lynching, but the latter crime is not simply directed at that victim. It was directed at all the other black people in the region.

      A cross burning in someone’s yard, taken in isolation, is, what? Trespassing and perhaps a very minor vandalism charge, assuming the Klansmen brought their own wood and didn’t set fire to any other property. Clearly it’s much more than a property crime in reality. Hate crimes are terrorism, pure and simple. When people are targeted for no other reason than who they are – race, religion, sexuality, nationality, etc., it’s not just about the simple elements of the underlying crime anymore. The intent of the crime and the selection of the victim is calculated to send a threat – a credible threat – to everyone else of that identity. The message it sends is “You don’t belong here. We know who you are and where you live. We can get you anytime we choose.”

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Word!

      • Yes, some crimes are more important. Murder tops out theft.

        But a murder victim is not more dead because it was a hate crime.

        The law has no business “gauging the damage of an act to society at large.” Is arson against a Catholic church worse than arson against a kosher bakery? Is killing a child with all their unrealized potential worse than killing a prominent politician? Is a false rape accusation worse than the act of rape itself? Should the old homes on the wrong side of the tracks be preserved like the well kept old homes uptown? These are the value judgements that you are asking the law to make.

        These are the value judgements that government is uniquely unqualified to make.

        Murder is murder. Theft is theft. Property destruction is property destruction.

        Look at how people are now declaring that “hate speech” must not be allowed. With one word, anyone you don’t agree with can be silenced. And if they don’t stay silent, well then, retribution is only natural, isn’t it?

        And by the way, have you noticed that some states are considering making criticism of police hate speech?

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          “Hate speech” is a real thing but should never become a legal charge. It’s an infringement of free speech, pure and simple. I’ve been dismayed at how intolerant some campuses have become over this issue.

          • Oh, that’s adorable! You actually think it’s confined to “some campuses.”

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I only speak of the ones I know.

          • You might start in Ferguson, Missouri.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Please expand. My awareness of Ferguson is of the first jurisdiction whose cop was filmed shooting an unarmed Black youth.

          • Nope. Not going to be your researcher.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            In dealing with four squabbling children, my Dad used to say “Don’t bring up half subjects.” If you want to talk about a campus in Ferguson, talk about it. If not, quit wasting electrons.

          • Because I know from past experience you’re not interested in discussion.

            You don’t want dissent.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Would I be replying to you if I weren’t interested in discussion? (Of which dissent is an inevitable part.) This seems to be my day to upbraid you on process. It’s very poor form to make assumptions about the other person’s motives or interests. I get that you’re the kind of guy who like to think he leads with a clear mind. That sort of rhetoric muddies it.About Ferguson: You brought it up, and now you don’t want to talk about it. If that feels like I’m assigning you unsought homework, well, you brought it up. Telling me to look it up assigns me unsought homework, and you’re not allowed to do that.

          • Are you really interested in looking outside your comfort zone?

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Looking outside my comfort zone is my comfort zone.

          • I’m sure you believe that.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Fish or cut bait.

          • You’re making my points for me.

  • richard james

    Front window insurance is often a separate item in a shopkeeper’s policy, and can be very expensive. About 20 years ago I was forced to go with Lexan windows for the front of The Occult Shop in Toronto. They cost a lot more than glass, but subsequent attempts to break them failed, so they were a good solution for a long time.

    I’m fairly sure the attacks on The Occult Shop were by a very few people, and I suspect the case in Winnipeg is the same. So hang in there Dominique and you Winnipagans. Don’t let the idiots get you down.

    Richard James

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