Police charged a Mississauga man with pretending to practice witchcraft Tuesday, a charge that’s somewhat controversial in the witch and pagan community, but laid surprisingly often in Ontario.
Police allege Gustavo Valencia Gomes, the publisher of Spanish-language newspaper el Negocio Redondo, advertized his services as a healer and then, using spells and rituals, convinced a woman that she and her family were cursed and that he could remove the curse for a price. She paid $14,000 before police arrested him, officers said.
It’s a common scam, says Ariana L’Heureux a witch who works at The Occult Shop on Bathurst Street, which offers tarot card readings for a small upfront charge.
“It’s a story that happens a lot, people will come in and say, ‘I dropped $4,000 on another reader who then told me I was cursed and they would have to do all this work in order to help me,’” she said. “It definitely happens more often than it should and that’s why a law like this needs to be in place.”
Police will often lay fraud charges, but L’Heureux said the witch law aids them in their investigation by helping them narrow in on that specific kind of fraud from the beginning.
The law separates witches, like herself, who use the power of the nature and universe and offer spiritual advice, from charlatans who “pretend to be something they’re not for monetary gain, exploiting people’s weaknesses.”
Brendan Myers, a pagan and philosophy professor at the Cégep Heritage College, worries that the law could be used against law-abiding pagans.
“It may put people in my community at risk of not being able to practice their faith,” he said, adding that although the law has not been abused in the past, but he worried it could be in the future.
The law only targets people who purport to practice witchcraft, but there are no equivalent laws for charlatans that abuse other faiths, he said.
On the other hand, he also worries the witchcraft charge may get a fraudster off the hook.
“Witchcraft and paganism are recognized as religion,” he said. “What if someday a conman uses these precedents to say what he did was religion and therefore it should be protected, when in fact it’s obvious to all that what he was doing was cheating people?”
Six Ontarians have been charged with pretending to practice witchcraft since 1999, four of them in the past four years, according to Torstar archives.
Here’s a list of individuals recently charged with witchcraft:
Etobicoke: Satish Jaitly charged 1999
Pickering: Juanita Kerr charged 1999
Toronto: Vishwantee Persaud charged 2009
Brampton: Yogendra Pathak charged 2010
Toronto: Batura Draame charged 2010
Mississauga, Gustavo Valencia Gomes, charged 2012