Woman charged with witchcraft just 2 days before offence scrubbed from law

A northern Ontario woman was charged with fake witchcraft just two days before the archaic offence was removed from the Criminal Code.

Timmins police allege woman was demanding money to avert a 'dreadful' event

Police in Timmins, Ont. have charged Tiffany Butch with "pretending to practise witchcraft." (Tiffany Butch)

A northern Ontario woman was charged with fake witchcraft just two days before the archaic offence was removed from the Criminal Code.

Timmins police charged 33-year-old Tiffany Butch on Dec. 11, accusing her of demanding money in return for lifting a curse. Two days later, Section 365 of the Criminal Code — which prohibits "pretending to practise witchcraft" — was formally repealed.

It's likely that Butch, who goes by the nickname "White Witch of the North," will be the last person in Canada to be charged, and potentially tried, for the offence.

Marc Depatie, a spokesperson for the Timmins force, said police and prosecutors work with the laws that are on the books at the time of the alleged offence, pointing to historical sexual offences as an example.

"That's why police and the Crown attorneys keep ancient, or aged, versions of the Criminal Code on hand, to see what laws apply," he said.

Depatie said the fact that the offence was about to be scrubbed from the Criminal Code was not a factor in the decision to lay the charge. Elements of the case were "best captured" by that section of the Criminal Code in consultation with the local Crown attorney's office, he said.

"(In) this particular set of circumstances, the person gave them a sense of foreboding that a dreadful thing was about to happen to their family at some point ... (that) they should provide them with financial compensation so they could perform some sort of mystical service that would prevent that from happening," Depatie said.

Removing 'zombie' laws

Section 365 was removed under Bill C-51, which received Royal Assent on Dec. 13. It wiped out so-called "zombie" offences that are considered obsolete or redundant, or have been found to be unconstitutional — things like challenging someone to a duel, distributing crime comics, issuing trade stamps and publishing 'blasphemous' libel.

Butch denies the allegations and said she believes she was framed by other psychics.

"People proclaimed me a witch here and gave me a nickname, but I'm not a witch. I'm a psychic," she said in a telephone interview.

Butch said she adopted the "White Witch of the North" nickname because she thought it was "cute," but insists she has never pretended to be a witch or illicitly demanded money.

"Absolutely not. I don't know who this person even is, and none of my customers from October to now have put in any complaints with me or asked me for refunds back," she said.

Fighting witchcraft charge

Butch plans to get a lawyer to fight the charge and is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 22.

Timmins police issued a release Monday stating that the accused maintains an alias and "holds herself to be a self-proclaimed spiritualist, medium and clairvoyant." The department also reminded people to be wary of "extravagant claims of impending danger" made by anyone who claims to have "clairvoyant or mystical powers."

In October, police charged a Milton, Ont. woman with fraud, extortion and pretending to practice witchcraft, alleging the fortune-teller had scammed vulnerable people out of tens of thousands of dollars.

Stephen Coughlan, a professor at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University, said Bill C-51 was a useful but modest step in cleaning the Criminal Code of outdated offences such as the one related to witchcraft. In addition to removing some obsolete offences, it also takes out a number of "reverse onus" provisions that required an accused to prove their innocence on particular points.

But Coughlan said several provisions which have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court — in some cases twenty-five or thirty years ago — remain on the books.

Major fix required

A bill is now before the Senate to remove more zombie laws, but Coughlan called its targets "low hanging fruit" that make up a small portion of what needs to be fixed.

"Even when they are done, the code will remain riddled with inconsistencies and overlap, and will still fail to provide guidance on such crucial things as the mental states required before behaviour can be called a crime," he said in an email. "No amount of tinkering can accomplish the fundamental changes that are needed."

The Criminal Code was created in 1892 to outline offences, penalties and procedures. It has had only one major overhaul in the 1950s and another review in the 1970s.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould promised to review the Criminal Code after an Edmonton judge vacated Travis Vader's second-degree murder conviction in the killings of two Alberta seniors.

The use of a zombie law in Vader's original conviction nearly derailed the legal proceedings after the defence filed an appeal. The law had been declared unconstitutional but remained on the books and was cited by the judge in his ruling.

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