TORONTO — Two Ontario women have been charged in as many weeks with a seemingly unusual crime that would not seem out of place in 17th-century Massachusetts: posing as a witch.
The second woman is 27-year-old Samantha Stevenson from Toronto, who police claim bilked a 67-year-old man out of $600,000 in a so-called “evil blessing scam.” Police say she promised to ward off evil spirits if he sold his house and transferred the money into her bank account until the spirit removal was complete. It was never returned.
(Officials are looking into whether the women are related or if their identical surnames are just a spooky coincidence.)
The women were charged under section 365 of Canada’s criminal code, which deals with the crime of “pretending to practice witchcraft.” Considered by many to be an archaic section of the law, the offense occurs when someone “fraudulently” pretends to tell fortunes or “to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.” It also makes illegal using “knowledge of an occult or crafty science” to locate lost objects.
The offense carries a punishment of up to six months in prison or a $2,000 fine, or both.
Section 365 has been law in Canada since 1892. It originated in a British statute from 1735 that repealed an earlier British law classifying witchcraft as a felony, after centuries of witch hunts in early modern Europe. The 1735 repeal reserved “a minor punishment” for “cheats and rogues” pretending to practice witchcraft, according to a paper in the Marquette Law Review.
The law remained unchanged in Canada over the centuries but for the addition of the word “fraudulently” in the 1950s.
This means that practicing witchcraft is not a crime in Canada, but faking it in order to extort or deceive others is. In fact, in a news release announcing one of the arrests, police were careful to note that the “charge is not connected in any way to any religion.”
Legal experts say that convictions under section 365 are extremely rare. Sometimes, charges are dropped if restitution is paid, as in the case of a man who in 2003 duped his clients into forking over nearly $23,000 for blood-stained eggs, black coal and worms — effective remedies, he claimed, for various curses. In other instances, the witchcraft-related charge is dropped and the defendant pleads guilty to fraud charges. That’s what happened in 2009, when a Toronto woman pleaded guilty to four counts of fraud after she convinced a lawyer to hand over tens of thousands of dollars by asserting that she was the manifestation of his dead sister.
But it’s likely that police won’t be able to charge people under section 365 for much longer.
Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government introduced Bill C-51, legislation that would, among other things, remove “zombie laws” — those that are considered redundant or obsolete or that haven’t been removed from the books even though they’ve been deemed unconstitutional by courts.
The bill, which is nearing its final vote in the Senate, would ax section 365, as well as laws prohibiting challenging someone to a duel, issuing trading stamps, advertising a reward for the return of stolen property “no questions asked” and impersonating someone during a university exam.
Not everyone is pleased with Bill C-51’s plans to remove witchcraft-related offenses from the criminal code.
During a parliamentary debate over the bill, Peter Van Loan, a Conservative lawmaker, questioned whether eliminating section 365 was such a good idea given the proliferation of evil blessing scams and similar efforts to defraud the public.
“These things really happen in our society, even in this day and age,” he said. “Does that provision, as it exists right now, cause any harm? No. Does it give the police an avenue or resource in the case of those particular unusual offenses? Yes, it does.”
Others say that eliminating section 365 is long overdue given the history of witchcraft-related offenses as tools used around the world to oppress women.
A 2015 paper by Natasha Bakht, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, and Jordan Palmer, a doctoral student there, described the law as “facially neutral but deeply patriarchal” and called for its repeal.
While the law should protect people from “frauds perpetrated under threat of misfortune,” Bakht and Palmer argue that “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.”