Column: Voices of Canadian Pagan Activists

Dodie Graham McKay —  March 21, 2015 — 6 Comments

March 14, 2015 – a day of action across Canada [Photo by Paul S.Graham]

March 14, 2015 – a day of action across Canada [Photo by Paul S.Graham]

It is hard to ignore the current political climate in Canada. Never before have we been faced with a government that has tried to overhaul and carve up our country quite the way our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, and his Conservative government are doing right now. For a country renowned for it’s affable nature and politeness, things are changing. In numbers not seen for decades, people are becoming radicalized and discovering reasons to become activists – for the environment, for our social programs, and now for the basic safety, privacy and security we had come to take for granted.

On January 30, 2015, Bill C-51, an “Anti-Terrorism Act” was unveiled in the House of Parliament. This massive piece of proposed legislation includes sweeping, radical changes to Canadian law and security systems by reducing the privacy and freedom of speech of Canadian people.

Bill C-51 would allow the government to:

  • Expand the definition of “Security” to not only include public safety, but to also prevent interference with the “economic or financial stability of Canada”. This could mean if you were a protestor at a rally or blockade against a pipeline you would be seen as a national threat to security.
  • The bill leaves the government to its own discretion to designate what activities may be security threats, without clear definition.
  • Even experts, such as Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, are unclear about what will constitute free speech under this bill. How are average Canadians supposed to know what can get them into trouble? The Criminal Code of Canada already has laws against committing or inciting others to commit terrorist acts. C-51 adds another layer including “advocating or promoting terrorism.’ which makes understanding the offense even more difficult.
  • The current criminal code already allows for something called “preventative arrest,” or the ability for police to arrest and detain without charge if they think you may commit a terrorist activity if they don’t. C-51 expands this, lowering the threshold and doubling the time you can be detained for.

The list goes on from there. Bill C-51 is a sprawling document over 60 pages long. With a federal election looming on the horizon, the Harper government needs to gain approval and push it through fast. It has already been voted in by the majority Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper. Now it must be brought before the House committee on National Security and Defence. If they approve it will be re-introduced to the House of Commons for a final vote before it is enacted into Law.

In a speech delivered at an anti-Bill C-51 rally on March 14, Pat Martin, Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre explained how Harper rushed the process of closing the bill:

…he has moved closure on this bill after only one and one-half days of debate, he has truncated the committee process to only a few witnesses will be heard, he has run roughshod and undermined everything that is good and decent about our parliamentary democracy in his zeal to ram this bill through Parliament…the last time Parliament dealt with any kind of amendments to the public safety act was after 911, we had 54 days of debate in the House of Commons, we had 90 witnesses, expert testimony, because we know you do not interfere with these basic fundamental rights and freedoms lightly. This is not something you do with a day and a half of debate in the House of Commons….Harper has undermined the ability of your elected representatives to act on your behalf….you have to take it to the streets – sometimes civil disobedience is civil defense. 

On March 14, 2015, more than 60 Canadian communities held rallies and marches to protest Bill C-51. All across the country people from all walks of life participated in an action that, if this Bill passed, would no doubt land them on a government watch list.

Within Pagan groups, what does this mean? Many of us are environmentalists, some of us subscribe to alternative news sources, or campaign for religious freedom. Within the description of Bill C-51 is a wide grey area that we fall into and many of the causes we hold dear and participate in could land us on the government’s watch list. Many Pagans across the country got involved in the day of protest.

Outside the Canadian Houses of Parliament, a 1-year old, third generation Pagan attends his first protest. [Photo by Marc LeBlanc]

Outside the Canadian Houses of Parliament, a 1-year old, third generation Pagan attends his first protest. [Photo by Marc LeBlanc]

In Canada’s capitol city, Ottawa, Ontario, hundreds of people gathered outside the office of the Prime Minister on Parliament Hill. Sheena MacIsaac, a member of the Board of Directors for Gaia Gathering – The Canadian National Pagan Conference and mother of two, attended with her family:

We are participating because this bill is a terrible overreaction. It feels like it has been sitting in wait for anything to happen in Canada. There is no accountability, nor oversight. The terms are vague. I don’t want my children or family targeted because we love the earth and are vocal about it.

In London, Ontario, Sophia, an American Pagan living in Canada as a permanent resident, is shocked to find out that Canada’s politics are just as compromised as other places. Her reason for participating in the March 14th protest is pure and simple, She said, “I can say is that political action is part of my commitment to the living Earth that supports us with such grace.” 

On the west coast of the country, in British Columbia, the Pagan presence in Vernon took the form of writer and Priestess, Sable Aradia, one of over 400 people who shut down the highway in her hometown of Vernon, a small city of 40,000 people located in the lush Okanagan Valley.

Of her participation in the protest, Sable says:

Sable Aradia protesting Bill C-51 outside the office of her local Member of Parliament. [Photo by Chris Madsen]

Sable Aradia protesting Bill C-51 outside the office of her local Member of Parliament. [Photo by Chris Madsen]

I’m not really an activist. I sign occasional petitions and write the infrequent letter. The last thing I publicly protested was the Gulf War. But C-51 was a deal-breaker for me. It’s a less-well-regulated variant of the Patriot Act. What’s particularly troubling is the inclusion of groups that threaten the “economic well-being” of Canada. Since environmental activists and First Nations often chain themselves to trees to stop loggers and would-be frackers, it’s pretty clear how they intend to use this clause. I see no way in which the bill would, in actuality, increase our security but I see many ways in which it would endanger our civil liberties. It is an overreaction to an isolated incident and it’s clear that it is at least in part motivated by racism. It has no place in the Canada that I want to live in. My tradition of witchcraft is BTW descended but distinctly influenced by the more political climate of West Coast Paganisms such as Reclaiming. My politics tend to be moderately left-wing. I support equality, freedom, feminism and environmentalism. For me those ethics flow naturally from the Charge of the Goddess.

Also in British Columbia, activist and Pagan podcaster Sparrow, of the Wigglian Way Podcast hit the streets of Vancouver, along with over 1000 other protestors, and gathered on the lawn of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Sparrow, who has put her talk into action recently protesting the Kinder Morgan pipeline through her Burnaby Mountain home, felt that there really was no choice but to protest C-51:

Bill C51 is counter to what being Canadian is all about. We have the freedom and the responsibility to keep government in check. It is our government and our country is supposed to be a democratic one. Bill C51 is in direct opposition of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The bill would in effect make it illegal to protest in this country. It is a direct attack on First Nations people and Activists. This bill has nothing to do with “terrorism” as those in authority would have us believe, but everything to do with raping this land of it’s resources.

Sparrow is very active in environmental issues as well as Aboriginal rights and equality issues. A project she is passionate about is Settlers Info.org, a website offering information and resources to facilitate a paradigm shift in Canada among the non-aboriginal Canadian population in relation to First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and create unity and understanding among the entire population.

The Winnipeg, Manitoba edition of the protest was also attended by over 1000 people and many “WinniPagans” joined the crowd. The rally was held in the courtyard of Winnipeg’s City Hall and featured speakers from government, Aboriginal, student, and community groups. Underscoring the wide range of people who could be considered a threat to national security was a performance by “The Winnipeg Raging Grannies” who provided some hilarious songs of protest and decent and reminded us of how easily our own actions can be deemed dangerous.

This is what a threat to Canadian national security looks like – The Raging Grannies [Photo by Paul S. Graham]

This is what a threat to Canadian national security looks like – The Raging Grannies [Photo by Paul S. Graham]

One outspoken WinniPagan is Katherine Bitney, a poet, essayist and Witch who participated in the protest accompanied by her daughter and granddaughter – three generations of strong Pagan women determined to fight for the land:

My Paganism in a sense drives and/or determines my politics. Learning natural law, as it manifests in the world around us, and living from an ethics based on this. We are very aware that this bill is aimed at anyone who opposes Harper’s agenda to give the land over to corporations that will, already do, destroy it. It makes environmentalists, anyone who stands up for the land, Indigenous people, into enemies of the Harper state. It silences and criminalizes dissent. As a Pagan it’s my responsibility to listen to and watch out for the land, and to speak out against, fight, its enemies. All land is holy.

Reinforcing the Pagan connection to the land, is Lawrence, another WinniPagan, who attended the rally with the rest of his covenmates:

The bill would be used to crack down on the civil, humanitarian, and ecological endeavours of groups who choose to protect those rights against corporate and economic profiteers. C-51 places economic interests on par with – or above – human and ecological rights. As a witch, that makes no sense at all. My gods aren’t capitalists. They are gods of the wood, of the land, of waters, of air, of sacred groves and hearths. There is nothing in that which calls me to spoil the land, starve living beings, or disproportionately churn what natural balance is left. I choose to be political so I can protect that which is sacred to me, respect that which the gods find honourable, and affect what change may be possible.

Winnipeg Witches protest C-51 at City Hall [Photo by AT]

Winnipeg Witches protest C-51 at City Hall [Photo by AT]

What should Canadian Pagans and Witches do about C-51? Sparrow had this to say, “Now, I do expect more from Canadian Pagans. I expect the mundane and the magical. I’ve been to a lot of ritual where the idea was planted, but nothing is growing. I’ve also been to ceremony where you make a pledge to Spirit or the Gods, and YOU DO WHAT YOU PLEDGE. It’s not that hard. Really. Get out to a “call to action”. Activism is fun.”

As a response to the increasing dissent toward the government of Canada and the growing frustration of Pagans with the way things are going, more and more Pagan folk of all stripes are fed up and becoming activists. Sable Aradia invited some of us to join her in her new blog, Winding Widdershins, dedicated to Canadian politics through a Pagan lens. She said:

In general, I prefer not to discuss politics in Pagan circles; we’re already such a factitious lot. But our spirituality guides our ethics, and our ethics do influence our politics. I don’t like politics myself, but I keep finding out about things that concern me through Facebook feeds and chance conversations and that’s no way to do it. I figured we needed a forum to encourage this kind of discussion, if nothing else so that I don’t feel so impotent against overwhelming forces. 

Looking ahead, it really seems like this will be an exciting year of political activity in Canada. With a federal election tentatively scheduled for October 2015, issues like Bill C-51 will be boiling over and Canadian Pagans will be stirring the pot.

By earth, by air, by fire, by water
We are the good earth’s sons and daughters
By voice, by heart, by my own hand
I swear to keep this holy land
By the power of three times three
This is my oath So mote it be
And as you share
So do you swear

– Crystal Coven of Winnipeg’s  “Oath to the Land”

Dodie Graham McKay

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Dodie Graham McKay is an initiated Witch and independent film maker living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She has been involved in magic, music and media since the late eighties, and finds it important to be connected to the currents and communities that influence our art, environment and magical practices.