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.
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.”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?”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.
* * *
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.