Witchcraft itself is not illegal but pretending to use it is. (Photo:REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
The public attitude towards witchcraft has fluctuated wildly over the years. Once upon a time, men and women accused of being witches faced horrible punishment if convicted, often by execution.
Today, one of the richest women in the world got that way by writing a series of books about the exploits of a young wizard and his friends. That’s quite the about-face in social mores.
Writing fiction about witchcraft is quite different from claiming to practice it, however. Though witch trials and burnings at the stake are no more, that doesn’t necessarily mean witchcraft has legal acceptance.
Of spell books and law books
The Criminal Code of Canada makes it quite clear that it is an offence to undertake one the following activities:
- Pretend to use any kind of witchcraft, enchantment, sorcery or conjuration
- Tell fortunes for money
- Pretend to use knowledge of the occult or, “craft science” to reveal where any lost or stolen items may be, or how they got there
The maximum fine for a conviction is $500 and/or six months in jail.
Conjurer or con-man?
The wording of the law is very important. Witchcraft itself is not illegal but pretending to use it is. Rather than a law meant to punish witches, the purpose of the law seems to be to protect the public from unscrupulous people hoping to make money off the willingness of others to believe in the paranormal.
Though the law may seem archaic, its application is more common than one might think, and there are numerous examples in Ontario alone. Most recently, Toronto Police charged a man for pretending to practice witchcraft in March 2017, after he allegedly charged a “client” over $100,000 to remove an evil spirit from the client’s daughter.
One of the biggest issues with this law is the matter of belief. While a fraudster might deliberately mislead a willing client, a practitioner who genuinely believes he or she has paranormal or magical skills might not knowingly be committing fraud. Intent is difficult to prove and it is for this reason that few of the many commercial psychics and fortune-tellers are charged.
Rest for the Wiccan
What most people call witchcraft, some people call spiritualism, or even religion. Wicca came to Canada in the 1960s but it would not receive legal recognition as a religion until 1987. That year, an Ontario court specifically stated that Wicca is a religion and granted a man the right to be absent from work to observe the Pagan festival of Beltane.
Since then, Wicca has gained further acceptance as a legitimate religion. Both the Canadian military and some correctional facilities now allow Wiccan services when requested.
Looking to the future
Many Wiccans want the witchcraft law repealed but this seems unlikely to happen. Though some are concerned police could use the law abusively, it appears that its value in consumer protection remains valid.