Canada Cracking Down on ‘Fraudulent’ Witchcraft


The National Post has an article about an old Canadian law being used to prosecute con artists preying on people’s credulity in a number of different supernatural scams. The law prohibits “fraudulently…pretend[ing] to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.”

A little-used law that cracks down on “pretend witchcraft” remains in force more than a century after its enactment, but cities across Canada are still crawling with sham conjurers, fake sorcerers and fraudulent psychics…

Last week, his division charged self-described “healer” Gustavo Gomez under Section 365 of the Criminal Code, an archaic law that targets “everyone who fraudulently … pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration.”

Mr. Gomez reached clients through Spanish-language radio and print ads in Quebec and Ontario, convincing people they were under a curse, then offering to lift it for $10,000 to $15,000.

Toronto Police are now warning of similar “curse-lifters” prowling the city’s Chinese community. They approach elderly Cantonese speakers on the street, warn them of a curse, convince them to fill a bag with valuables for a special ritual, then run off with it.

The scam has been rampant in Vancouver, where con artists will sometimes throw in promises of “lucky jade bracelets” or bottles of “blessed mystical water.”

“We’ve had about seven [incidents] reported to us,” Detective Constable Jay Amundsen of Vancouver police told Postmedia News. “We’re talking about $100,000.”

I’m all for prosecuting such people. But what exactly is the difference between that and what faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers do every day? When a Christian preacher tells their followers that God will heal them or bless them if only they “plant their seed of faith,” that is an identical form of fraud.

Comments

  1. Doug Little says

    A little-used law that cracks down on “pretend witchcraft” remains in force more than a century after its enactment

    So real witchcraft is OK then?

  2. psweet says

    So real witchcraft is OK then?

    It’s a little hard to prosecute someone who can turn the jury into frogs!

  3. otrame says

    Erm…

    What about all the people of north European heritage that do exactly the same thing. Is anyone arresting them?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the arresting part, but why limit it to ethnic minorities?

  4. Sastra says

    Yes. In the same spirit as “well, can you prove God doesn’t exist?” someone can simply defend themselves by asking whether the authorities can prove they didn’t lift up a dangerous curse.

    The supernatural is the supernatural. It seems more than a little inconsistent to agree that SOME supernatural claims have to meet rational standards but OTHER supernatural claims are ‘special’ and protected from any secular oversight.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    This reminds me of a recent exchange of posts on Panda’s Thumb between Robert Asher and Jason Rosenhouse, in which Asher relates:

    I remain convinced that in order to make a positive difference in science literacy, educators should distinguish between superstition and religion, understand that human identity can entail elements of both, and acknowledge that science does not render religion untenable.

    Bold added by me for mockery.

  6. Michael Heath says

    Ed concludes:

    I’m all for prosecuting such people. But what exactly is the difference between that and what faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers do every day? When a Christian preacher tells their followers that God will heal them or bless them if only they “plant their seed of faith,” that is an identical form of fraud.

    Imagine someone filing a suit against against a Christian making money by claiming to heal people. I’d love to read the ruling ruling of an extremely competent and unbiased judge struggling with such a conundrum.

  7. matty1 says

    It seems to me the line should be whether the scamster promises a result in exchange for you paying them. If they just waffle on and then ask if you feel like donating then unpleasant as it is there is no clear division between delusions and liberty of conscience.

    Once they start saying “If you pay I guarantee X” they are out of the field of religion and into commerce where different rules apply.

  8. raven says

    Imagine someone filing a suit against against a Christian making money by claiming to heal people.

    Some of the more ruthless xian faith healers are very wealthy. IIRC, Benny Hinn lives in a big mansion somewhere near LA. Pat Robertson got his start as a faith healer and is now a billionaire.

    The faith healers do sometimes get prosecuted. Right after they kill a kid or two for manslaughter or similar. Most of the time they don’t, depending on the state laws.

    However, it is perfectly legal for anyone over 18 to reject medical care and die. It happens often enough that I see it every once in a while.

    There are a few psychics in my area, openly advertising. No one seems to care.

  9. Sastra says

    It’s probably going to be like alternative medicine. You can’t make explicit claims about cures, but you can waffle on vaguely about “helping” or “aiding” or “boosting immunity” or “ridding the body of toxins.” Health, wealth, love, whatever. YOU don’t do anything — you just adjust things so that Nature (or God) can work the way it’s supposed to. Evil spirits gone.

    And when push comes to shove, claim it was SPIRITUAL health/wealth being racked up. In heaven. The money wasn’t for you: it simply indicated the sincerity to be ‘healed.’

    I fear that the law will try to differentiate here between people who really believed in their bullshit — and those who didn’t. That’s a very flexible line. And irrelevant. A really good fraud will fool the person committing it.

  10. says

    Isn’t that what churches are on about? Come here and pray and you won’t go to hell? And they collect money while dodging taxes.

    The lesson here is that if you’re small-time criminal, you get busted on – but if you’re part of the big mafia, you get covered. Any surprises?

  11. anubisprime says

    I have no idea but it is supposed that Canada has the equivalent of the Supreme court in their law system?

    If so would it be possible to ask them to define the law to understand its parameters, see who or what it covers, and if not xtian ‘faith healers’ the reason why?

  12. says

    This sort of thing worries me. It tends to get applied to tarot readers as well, even those who do say “This is entertainment only. I am not psychic. The cards, and the ideas they express, are a way of getting you to think about your situation outside the frames you’re in.” I sell tarot readings in my Etsy shop, with just that disclaimer. I am also planning to sell amulets, which work about as hard as the wearer. They’re psychological tools, nothing more. I’m a witch who does magic but doesn’t believe it’s supernatural.

    I’d love to see frauds get prosecuted: “Give me $10,000 to break a curse. Or $5,000 to lay one.” (everyone knows that curses work about as hard the cursee’s belief in it.) But the people who put enough wiggle language into their pitch slip through the net. And in the end, it will come back on the small business owners, the ladies who run tea shops and palmistry studios and sell New Age kitsch, while the big churches are ignored.

  13. says

    angeliasparrow said:

    This sort of thing worries me. It tends to get applied to tarot readers as well, even those who do say “This is entertainment only. I am not psychic. The cards, and the ideas they express, are a way of getting you to think about your situation outside the frames you’re in.”

    You’ve seen people who make such disclaimers get successfully prosecuted for fraud?

    I’m a witch who does magic but doesn’t believe it’s supernatural.

    So you mean you’re a magician?

  14. eric says

    Angeliasparrow – Like Gretchen, I’ve never heard of a psychic who includes the ‘for entertainment purposes only’ caveat get prosecuted for fraud.
    .
    It would be quite amusing if such a standard was adopted by religious miracle-workers. “Before we start the service, everyone turn to Hymn 529, entitled ‘For entertainment purposes only.”‘

  15. says

    … what exactly is the difference between that and what faith healers and prosperity gospel preachers do every day? When a Christian preacher tells their followers that God will heal them or bless them if only they “plant their seed of faith,” that is an identical form of fraud.

    That. So much.

    I think the reality is, however, it’s going to be very difficult to catch them. The established religions have millenia of experience at this game, and they know how to make claims that are difficult entirely to falsify.

    It’s a thing you’ll notice about such sects: they tend not to promise things like the god will regrow your severed limb for you. Even the most blatantly predatory faith healers, as Randi documented, tend to choose people with ailments whose symptoms are to some degree fudgeable, amenable to suggestion. Pain is actually just fine with them, since, generally, it’s pretty hard to quantify how much someone is experiencing, and convincing them they’ve improved in some way, or convincing them to say as much, anyway, is generally an option. And even less obviously profit-oriented preachers will talk mistily and generally of ‘healing’, so almost any perceived improvement can be interpreted post facto as their god hearing and working its magic, not the subject being convinced they must feel better, or saying they do, under social pressure, and eagerness to please a perceived authority.

    And, yes, seriously, I think it is regrettable. But outlawing, given this problem, just means you catch the easy ones, the flagrant ones, the stupid ones–in short, the low-hanging fruit–and, I have to expect, also just the less socially dominant ones. As, I expect, the Brylcreemed wonders will plead religious exemption and get it, under the presumed privilege dominant, established sects are granted, and be given far more leeway. From an NRM or a minority religion? Watch your step. From a big, established Abrahamic faith or suitably ancient polytheism? What can you do. Promise away. It’s their religion, see.

    It’s why it goes back to the same thing: the real way to cut the legs out from under such operators is teach people not to be vulnerable to this stuff. Teach them to see when a claim is crafted specifically to avoid refutation, like almost a theological EULA, which, on examination of the fine print, happens to ascribe any imagined benefit unto the god and its alleged representatives, and makes any failure the result of your lack of faith, and never mind how long you’ve been tithing.

    (/See also: ‘This deity is not represented as being fit for any purpose, commercial or otherwise.’)

  16. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Curiously, since I’ve been in a canadian law school, there have been 3 different major discussions of this exact law. One significant in class discussion that was specifically about “real witchcraft” vs. christianity and whether the charter would make it illegal to ban real witchcraft without banning christianity – which they can’t do for other reasons. Also in that class was whether they could ban “fake witchcraft” without banning “fake christianity”. Then we had 2 othe sessions outside of the criminal law class. This particular law seems from my non-Canadian showing up a couple months ago in a Canadian law school perspective to be getting a lot of discussion. If these cases get appealed (and some of them will if there are enough) look for the SCC to make new law on criminal fraud, freedom of religion, and the nature of “comparator groups” (which are already quite hotly disputed in Canadian constitutional jurisprudence).

  17. Ichthyic says

    Imagine someone filing a suit against against a Christian making money by claiming to heal people

    uh, isn’t that essentially what the suit against the “reversion therapists” entails?

  18. anubisprime says

    timgueguen @ 18

    It’s called the Supreme Court as well,/blockquote>

    Ahh…’kewl…I wasn’t sure if being in the Commonwealth did not complicate juris prudence etc!
    Cos if cases were referred to the UK Supreme…they would get fudge after fudge!
    A recent case on the right to die by a seriously ill man was a cowardly travesty and they dodged and prevaricated rather then confront the growing call for their relatives not to be prosecuted in the UK for allowing euthanasia in Switzerland by Dignitas …but insured a muddy pool by stamping in it and then getting out!

    They literally ‘ummed and ‘arred for months until basically concluding no change to existing guide lines, about three days before the dude passed away, I think the way he was treated was absolutely a shameful and degrading performance ever to be perpetrated by the incompetent cowards.
    So I have absolutely no trust or respect for them …none!…About as much use as a chocolate fire-guard!

    I hope the Canadian supreme is staffed by a touch more integrity…hardly possible to have less!

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