Friday, April 12, 2013

History of Wicca in Canada - Rights

It is fairly easy for us to learn about the history of the Wicca and contemporary Paganism in the United Kingdom and the United States through books and scholarly articles originally published in those countries. It requires a bit more digging to discover the history in Canada. Only one book, Witches and Pagans and Magic in the New Age, written by a non-Pagan journalist (Kevin Marron) really exists; and it is out of print. This article, the second in a series that traces some of the roots of Wicca in Canada, was originally published in the magazine WynterGreene in 2008. It relies primarily on interviews and newspaper clippings. The first part of this article looked at some of the early figures of Wicca in Canada. This second segment looks at Wicca in the Canadian courts and public opinion.

Part II – Rights

Marie Jos├ęphine Corriveau. In 1763 she was the first woman to be tried and found guilty of Witchcraft in Canada by the military courts after New France fell to the British. She was suspected of at least one other murder, before being convicted for the death of her husband. After her execution her body was left to rot in a cage at the crossroads to the city. It is believed that her trial was as much political as it was about la sorcellerie. This was not the only witchcraft conviction in early Canada, but it is believed to be the first.

But Wicca is not the witchcraft of La Nouvelle France. When Wicca started to arrive and be openly practiced in Canada in the 1960s through to the early 1980s, there was very little distinction between the different kinds of Wicca. Craft was simply Craft. Initiates recognised each other through shared ritual ‘markers,’ and it was not uncommon for an Alexandrian, Gardnerian or other High Priest or Priestess to borrow a partner to perform ritual or initiations if no one else was available. Wicca was also much less distinguished from Satanism and other form of witchcraft that it is these days. This is quite evident from a couple of highly publicised court cases of the time.

Perhaps the best-known court case is the libel charge that Lion-Serpent Sun brought against David Maines and the evangelical television program 100 Huntley Street in 1988. Four years earlier, the show had aired an interview in which Pentecostal minister Len Olson told the tale of how he found Jesus: He claimed that in 1972, Mark Fedoruk (now Lion-Serpent Sun) had tried to kill him and his wife during a satanic ritual in Victoria, BC. Sun sued. His version of events was that in 1972 he was practicing Wicca, not Satanism, and that on the night in question Olson had smoked a significant amount of pot following a ritual and simply had a ‘bad trip.’

The case offered Canadians a fascinating, if somewhat slanted, look into the beliefs and practices of witchcraft in BC in 1972, as well as at the time of the trial. Among the evidence presented was Sun’s own Book of Shadows. As well, during the testimony of Gary Gage-Cole, a coven-mate of Sun’s, a photograph of the ritual room on the night in question was brought into evidence. The room had a pentacle with symbols around it painted onto the floor. During his testimony, Cole explained that the symbols in the darker shaded ring between the inner and outer circles were Hebrew letters that stand for names of God, but also are symbols of fire, water, wind and earth. He also said that some of the symbols were for angels and bats, or devils. “It's a balance, or a blending of opposites. As with everything in life, there is a duality,” he testified.

Several prominent BC witches also testified at the case, including Jean Kozocari and Robin Skelton, a professor of English at the University of Victoria. Skelton was the first witness in the trial to refuse to take his court oath on a bible, suggesting it would be inappropriate. After 15 hours of deliberation over two days, the jury decided that Sun did not attempt a human sacrifice, but that it was also substantially true that Sun was a Satanist. With their verdict, hey awarded Sun $10,000 in damages, plus court costs to be paid by the 100 Huntley Street. The verdict was both a victory and defeat for Sun, who said after the trial, “I do resent being called a Satanist in the sense that it's been explained in so many ways as being such a negative thing. […] I find that difficult.'' Later, a judge over-ruled the jury’s awarding of damages and ordered that since there was “divided success” on the allegations of libel, that the costs be split between to two parties. This was a decision that ultimately left Sun out-of-pocket financially.

Elsewhere in Canada, courts were busy trying to decide if Wicca was a religion. In 1986 Charles Arnold, with the support of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, filed a grievance against the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Active in the Wiccan Chuch of Canada, and an initiate of several traditions, Arnold was employed as a secretary at Humber College in Toronto. In April 1986 he put in a request to take Beltaine off work as a paid religious holiday. The request was denied on the grounds that Wicca was merely an excuse for “frivolous and morally-questionable acts.” The case went to arbitration in 1987 and Arnold won his case. In its ruling, the court stated that “Wicca is obviously a religion,” and in so doing set the first tangible precedent of a government body in Canada recognising Wicca as a legitimate religion.

A similar challenge in Calgary in 1992 involving visiting rights in a custody battle also put Wicca on the centre pedestal. In a court hearing, George Gay was denied visiting rights with his son because he was “involved in black magic”. In his appeal, Gay admitted to practicing Wicca, which he described as a religion involving worship of nature and pagan deities. Testifying on behalf of the defence, Rev. Paul W. Newman of the Toronto office of the United Church of Canada's Division of World Outreach, said in a letter of support, "I wish to testify the Wiccan religion is an authentic, respectable religion that works for the health and well-being of its followers." Gay won the appeal his visitation rights were restored. In their ruling, the Alberta Supreme Court said that religion could not be considered a factor in deciding custody of a child. This ruling is one of many that solidifies that ultimately it is behaviour rather than belief that is important to the Canadian courts.1

A couple of years later in BC, Wicca was once again publicly challenged. In 1994, Sam Wagar had won the nomination as the provincial New Democratic Party candidate for Abbotsford, in BC’s ‘bible belt.’ His nomination was later challenged on the basis that he was a witch and that he failed to declare this during the nomination process. Wagar had been quite visible as a public witch for over 15 years and felt that his religion was irrelevant to the nomination. He agreed to a second nomination race, but lost. Wagar filed a human rights complaint against the BC NDP on the grounds of religious discrimination. The case was settled out of court. It also appears to be last time that Wicca has been publicly challenged I the court or in the media.

While some Wiccans and witches were busy defending their rights and freedoms in the courts, other individuals were using the power of networking and the written word to take a more pro-active approach to securing acceptance for their religion.

Not long after the Lion-Serpent Sun and Charles Arnold trials, the The Law Enforcement Guide to Wicca by Canadian Wiccan policeman, Kerr Cuhulain was published in 1989. This book was “an important Canadian first step towards normalising relationships between Pagans and the police,” according to Professor Lucie Dufresne of the University of Ottawa. It has also become a classic text and widely distributed around the world in many languages. Cuhulain also founded the Wiccan Information Network (WIN) in 1989 to help counter the negative public perception of witchcraft, after having become involved a few years’ earlier with the Witches’ League for Public Awareness. It is believed that he is the first police officer to come out of the broom closet.

In 1994 the Pagan Federation Paienne Canada was founded as a multitraditional organization to “protect and promote the reputation of Pagans and Paganism in Canada.” It later incorporated in 1997 as federal nonprofit organization. Over the years the PFPC has provided Federal and Provincial governments with an understanding of contemporary Pagan religions, and been instrumental in getting Wicca and other Pagan paths included in the Canadian Military Chaplaincy handbook, as well as initiating chaplaincy programs in a variety prisons and hospitals. They have also been advocating for a repeal of the witchcraft law, which still exists in the Criminal Code of Canada (section 365).

These cases, as well as the efforts of many others too numerous to mention in this brief article, have opened the doors to the acceptance of Wicca as an almost mainstream religion in Canada. Wicca is currently one of the religions listed in the Canadian Military Chaplaincy Handbook, and indeed, earlier this year a Canadian military chaplain gave permission for a Wiccan Ostara celebration to be held outside the Christian Fellowship Centre at the NATO base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. One Canadian and six American Wiccans participated. Wiccan clergy have been allowed to visit Canadian prisons since 1981 to offer pastoral care to inmates, and several Wiccan or Neo-Pagan temples in BC have managed to meet the requirements for religious establishments, complete with ‘marrying rights;’ although attempts in other provinces have met with much less success.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I am also enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to answer my questions and share their stories. I am especially indebted to Castalia, Hawk, Richard James, Shelley Rabinovitch, and Sam Wagar for their help with this article series. These articles would not have been possible without their patience and time spent with me in person or online, or the valuable resources and contacts they provided.

Endnotes: 1. In Canada, religion is a freedom and cannot be contested in court. However, religion cannot be an excuse for behaviour that is excessive, dangerous or contrary to Canadian laws. (Lucie DuFresne. Lecture on Religious Rights in Canada, Gaia Gathering, 2007.)

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