Canada’s last witch trials: Women accused of fake witchcraft

A law against pretending to practise witchcraft will soon be repealed in Canada. But that hasn’t stopped local police from prosecuting those who use the “dark arts” to bilk people for thousands of dollars.

Two Canadian women have been charged with pretending to practise witchcraft, breaking a little-known law in Canada’s criminal code that could soon be out the door.

The first charge was levied against Dorie “Madeena” Stevenson, a fortune teller from Milton, Ontario on 18 October after a months-long investigation.

She is accused of defrauding a client of C$60,000 ($45,700; £35,700) in cash and property.

A week later, Toronto psychic Samantha Stevenson was also arrested in a similar but unrelated investigation.

Police allege she convinced a man the only way to get rid of “evil spirits” in his home would be to sell it, and transfer the proceeds into her account.

The accused often advertise themselves as a psychic or religious healer, and demand large sums of money to help remove curses or evil spirits from clients, police say.

“What we typically see is a tendency for perpetrators to take advantage of persons when they are in their most vulnerable state,” wrote Det Sgt Dave Costantini of Halton Regional Police, in a press release.

“Victims are manipulated into believing something bad will happen to them unless they remit cash. We even see incidents where victims are required to make purchases and remit these purchases in order to be cleansed.

“When victims cannot be squeezed any longer, the perpetrators rely on the victim’s embarrassment in not contacting police.”

The charges could lead to Canada’s last witch trials, as the section of the law banning pretending to practise witchcraft will soon be repealed.

In June 2017, the federal government proposed a bill repealing dozens of outdated sections of the criminal code, including the law against pretending to be a witch.

“I suspect police had just forgotten [the laws against witchcraft] existed, and it was the publicity over the fact that they were being removed that made police even remember that they were there,” said Dalhousie University law professor Stephen Coughlan.

Is witchcraft illegal in Canada?

It is not illegal to practise witchcraft in Canada – either as part of a religion like Wicca or as an occult practice.

However, according to Section 365 of Canada’s Criminal Code, it is illegal to “fraudulently pretend to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration”.

The law has generally been interpreted as a provision against using the occult to perpetuate fraud, say by someone promising to cure a disease with magic.

The conviction can lead to a C$2,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

The law has rarely been applied in the 21st Century, although it is not unheard of:

  • In 2017, astrologist and psychic Murali Muthyalu was charged with witchcraft after a client allegedly paid $100,000 to have a curse removed. The witchcraft charge was dropped and he pleaded guilty to fraud
  • In 2012, a man who billed himself as a “healer” was charged with witchcraft after clients paid him tens of thousands of dollars to remove curses. All charges were dropped after he agreed to pay restitution
  • In 2009, Vishwantee Persaud was charged with witchcraft in addition to multiple fraud charges. The charge of witchcraft was eventually dropped. Prosecutors withdrew the witchcraft charge after she pleaded guilty to fraud

The law has been criticised for targeting women and cultural groups where beliefs in magic are more widespread.

“The provision that differentiates this type of fraud from others is mired in historic oppression of women and religious minorities, and is not necessary to prosecute fraud,” wrote Natasha Bakht and Jordan Palmer in a working paper published in the journal Windsor Review of Legal and Social Issues.

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