Canada’s witch trials: Fake sorcerers and sham psychics abound despite hundred-year-old law to protect people

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.

“I think the rarity of the charge comes down to the rarity of people coming forward,” said Detective Constable James Turnbull of Toronto police. “You’re trying to explain to people that they’ve been victimized and they don’t believe you; they believe the guy’s power is real.”

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.”

‘My spells are 100% real not fake, so if you need real spells that work then call me and i can help you’

Performing supernatural cons on the street is a new twist on a scam that traditionally involves fraudsters posing as palm readers to attract clients, convince them of a curse and offer a pricey antidote.

They “usually start off cheap or free, and then hook you and charge more and more money and promise things that are impossible for them to deliver,” wrote Tara Greene in an email to the National Post.

Her website says she’s a Toronto astrologer and psychic, although she prefers the term “intuitive counsellor.” She uses a familiar toolbox of crystal balls and tea leaves – but is careful to note, for legal reasons, that her services are for “entertainment purposes.”

“I use my intuition, I can see psychically [but] it is the client’s choice what to do with the information I give them and I am not responsible for that,” she said.

Vancouver psychic Cassandra Mac-Leane publishes tips on her website to steer people away from “fraudulent readers,” arguing they get honest psychics “tarred with the same brush.” The tricks these psychics use “are as old as written history,” such as breaking open a chicken’s egg to reveal a black omen, said Ms. MacLeane. “One year I met two professors from UBC who fell victim,” she said. “That just gives you a sense of how convincing they are.”

In decades past, psychics and palm readers were occasionally targeted in police raids, but today it’s buyer beware.

“It’s up to a person’s own beliefs whether they choose to believe in this stuff or not,” said Sergeant Randy Fincham, a Vancouver Police spokesman.

Many spell casters and sorcerers operate overseas, beyond the easy reach of the Canadian law.

“My spells are 100% real not fake, so if you need real spells that work then call me and i [sic] can help you,” reads a recent Kijiji ad linked to a Toronto phone number.

In August, fear of fraudulent sorcerers prompted eBay to drop all sellers offering “spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic; prayers; blessing services; magic potions [and] healing sessions.”

‘When you defraud people out of their savings or you risk their health, it doesn’t matter if it’s done by mainstream religious leaders or witch doctors’

Section 365 was written into the inaugural 1892 draft of the Criminal Code and stands among anti-duelling measures and alarming the Queen as one of the most rarely used sections in Canadian law.

Derived from medieval English laws that sought to detect – and burn – witches, the Canadian version may have come from a desire to “control the Gypsy populations,” says a 1999 criminology thesis by Tracesandra McDonald at the University of Ottawa.

In the Toronto area, however, police are using it every few months. In 2009, for instance, Vishwantee Persaud, 36, was charged under Section 365 for employing fake supernatural powers to defraud a lawyer of $100,000. The witchcraft charges were later replaced by fraud charges.

Justin Trottier, chief spokesman for the Centre for Inquiry, questioned why the law seems to pick on witches, while con artists with more conventional religious beliefs only face standard fraud charges.

“When you defraud people out of their savings or you risk their health, it doesn’t matter if it’s done by mainstream religious leaders or witch doctors or Tarot card readers, the law should be applied consistently,” he said.

“Personally, I am all for this law,” wrote Nicole Cooper, a second-degree high priestess with the Wiccan Church of Canada, in an email to the Post. “Many people every year that I personally hear about – and surely many more – are bilked out of thousands of dollars by unscrupulous charlatans offering ‘spiritual’ services in exchange for high fees.”

Getting a conviction is a different story. Legal scholars suggest a Section 365 charge risks bumping up against the “freedom of conscience and religion” rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Prosecutors would have to be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the ‘bad guy’ doesn’t actually have these powers and … I don’t even know how you’d go about proving that,” said Sgt. Fincham.