Double, double, toil and trouble
Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m low-key obsessed with spooky season. My favourite emoji is the crystal ball, my wardrobe alternates between “suburban witch mom” and “Stevie Nicks goes to the beach”, I think The Craft is a cinematic masterpiece, and I’ll probably offer to read your tarot cards whenever we hang out.
In honour of my favourite holiday (and a FULL MOON on the 31st, I mean, come on!!), I read up a bit on the history of witchcraft in Canada. We’re all probably familiar with the term “witchcraft” being used historically by men when women did pretty much anything they didn’t like. As one of my very astute eighth-graders observed last year, “Hey, how come the fairytale villains are always ugly old witches? That seems kinda sexist?” (I wanted to high five him for that one… great discussion was had that day!)
But did you know that colonial New France was steeped in witchcraft just as much as the much more infamous Salem, MA? Or that pretending to be a witch was illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada until 2018 (although actually being a witch was fine)?
Witchcraft: Not Just for the Ladies
Considering our current gendered associations with the word “witch”, I was pretty surprised to learn that lots of men were identified as witches in New France, and the term was used interchangeably with “sorcerer” (due to the translation from the French “sorcier/sorcière”). Two particularly infamous men tried with witchcraft were René Besnard and Jean Campagna. Besnard was said to have cast the impotence spell nouement à l’aguilette (translates to “knotting the needle”!) on a young man whose wife René had his eyes on. Many testified that Campagna put a curse on the cattle and oxen belonging to a man named Kessy after Kessy denied Campagna the hand of his daughter in marriage. Both he and Campagna protested their participation in any matters of the occult; Besnard, for his part, seemed rueful that he had gotten caught up in such a mess in the first place.
Witches as “Other”
As referenced above, charging someone with witchcraft has always been a handy fall-back when people desperately need something to blame for the unexplained or the undesirable. It seems that throughout Canadian history, communities tended to accuse outsiders of witchcraft to cast them (pun intended) as threats to the stability of local societies. The Acadians and the Mi’kmaq have always had a complex relationship; it was also rife with accusations of witchcraft. The Acadians’ fear of the unknown, contempt for outsiders, and of course misogyny combined to create many stories of the Mi’kmaq as “dangerous strangers”. Although white people were also often said to be witches, stories of Mi’kmaq magic doing harm in Atlantic Canadian communities were widespread. This included placing various curses on Acadians as well as the idea that the Mi’kmaq could cast spells which would seduce people to fall in love with them. The Acadians used this perception to ostracize the Mi’kmaq and perpetuate the racist stereotypes they had created; in this way, witchcraft became a tool of oppression.
It turns out that nowadays, Victoria, BC is known as the witch capital of Canada for its thriving witch population. In the 2011 census (the most current religion data I could find), 10 225 Canadians identified as Wiccan. Although misconceptions around Wicca (the religion of witchcraft) still abound among the general public, it’s a largely accepted subculture in most major Canadian cities nowadays. Wicca stresses a connection to the natural world as well as the law of threefold return (similar in nature to karma). Alison Skelton, a well-known Victoria witch, says, “For me, Wicca is an embodied spirituality, and the experience of being in the room sharing energy with other people is an essential part of it.” Wiccan principles are also strongly influenced by the environmental and feminist movements, which explains my personal fascination with the topic, and perhaps yours if you are also witch-curious. I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer as much as I enjoyed writing it! Check out the links if you’d like to learn more. Stay spooky, everyone.
Bonus content: The Top 10 Spooooookiest Women of 2020
10. A woman crying in public
9. Your ex’s new girlfriend liking your old Instagram post
8. The Resting Bitch Face
7. Carole Baskin
6. Any of your Facebook tagged pics from 2009
5. Amy Coney Barrett
4. A single woman over the age of 30
3. Anyone whose protest sign reads “I Don’t Need Feminism”
1. The new hire who might choose to start a family at any time
Happy Halloween from Herstory!
Paula Turcotte was born and raised in Calgary and received her B.Ed. from the University of Alberta. She has self-published a book of poetry and spends most of her weekends on a bike, in a tent, on cross-country skis, or hanging out with her dog. She makes a mean chocolate chip cookie.
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