Why Ontario police have charged a fortune teller under an antiquated 'witchcraft' law

An alleged fraudster in Milton, Ont., could be one of the last people charged with "pretending to practise witchcraft" before it's scrapped from the Criminal Code.

This could be one of the last uses of Section 365 before it's scrapped from the Criminal Code

This stock image shows a crystal ball and tarot cards. (Tilted Hat Productions/Shutterstock )
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A woman in Milton, Ont., has been charged fraud, extortion and "pretending to practice witchcraft."

That charge — laid against a fortune-teller accused of scamming vulnerable people out of tens of thousands of dollars — comes from Section 365 of Canada's Criminal Code.

But she may well be one of the last people ever to be tried under that law.

That's because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government introduced a bill last year to lift the ban on pretending to exercise witchcraft, along with several other antiquated rules known as "zombie laws." Bill C-51 is currently in its third reading before the Senate and close to becoming law.

​Halton Regional Police Det.-Const. Sarah McCullagh, who investigated the alleged fraudster, spoke to As It Happens guest host Megan Williams about why the police decided to pursue the witchcraft charge.

What is this psychic accused of doing to her clients?

We had a victim come forward [who] claimed to have been defrauded of just over $63,000 in cash and property. 

[The accused] would tell you that she sensed a bad energy around you or she sensed a curse or ghosts that were haunting you. ... You would pay to have her do rituals and cleansing in order to take away these bad spirits.  

In order to gain your trust, she would actually give that money back. And then over an extended period of time, she would start to ask for larger and larger sums of money, which would get into the $30,000 to 40,000 range in cash.

Once the victim would start to ask for the money back, she would say that bad things would happen to you. Bad things would happen to our family. And then eventually [she would] just stop returning phone calls.

There should still be something for these people that are taking advantage of very vulnerable people at a very tough time in their life.-- Sarah McCullagh, Halton Regional Police

Obviously, the clients who went to her believe in these sorts of powers. But are there any other characteristics that the people have who were willing to hand over so much money to essentially a stranger?

Typically these are very vulnerable people. They've either gotten divorced, going through a divorce, have lost a loved one, suffering illness within the family or [have] an illness themselves.

They're searching for anyone that can give them any good news or reasons why this is happening to them.

Halton Regional Police have charged a woman with 'pretending to practise witchcraft.' (CBC)

These, of course, are just allegations so far. They haven't been proven in court, but you hope to move forward with them. And the charge that you're moving forward with is fairly obscure — the witchcraft charge. Why did you decide to use it in this case, as opposed to just say fraud or extortion charges?

This one truly fit. We understand that this is an old charge, that the wording may be a little bit off.

We want people to truly understand that it is not illegal to be a psychic. It is not illegal to have a psychic practice. It is not illegal to practice any religion that involves witchcraft. These are not the people that we are after.

This witchcraft charge is because somebody is fraudulently telling fortunes for money. That is the charge. So it's under the fraud portion of the Criminal Code.

Given that there's no scientific evidence to prove that fortune-telling is accurate in any way, aren't all psychics who want payment in some way breaking this law?

No. You have to understand, a lot of psychics … say, "For entertainment purposes only." It's the psychics that do this fraudulently — that are using this, especially for people in very vulnerable states, to start handing over more and more and more money.

So this law is being repealed. It's still in the Criminal Code.

I know that it's before Parliament in order to have it removed. But I truly believe that the wording should just be changed. There should still be something for these people that are taking advantage of very vulnerable people at a very tough time in their life.

An elderly woman reads the future from coffee grounds left in a cup. Police say reading fortunes is not illegal if it's done for the purposes of entertainment. (Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)

So do you think it's appropriate to charge someone with a crime like this that may not be a crime for much longer?

I think it was. When I go to court with these charges, I will stand behind what I have charged this woman with.

I'm not going to take a step back. It will be up to the Crown at this time whether that charge is dropped or not.

So given what you've learned in this case, what would you tell people who want to go see a psychic or who work as psychics for money?

I can't really tell psychics how to do their job. What I do want to say is for people that want to go see a psychic is to please do your homework and make sure they're reputable. Avoid going to them when you're in a very vulnerable state.

And if you are told there's a curse on you, don't believe them.

Written by Donya Ziaee. Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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