Quebec occultist Yacouba Fofana (a.k.a. Professor Alfoseny) did a pretty nifty magic trick for some clients: he made their money disappear. Any services he managed to conjure up in exchange were apparently invisible.
Before he himself could perform a vanishing act, though, he was charged under Canada’s Criminal Code, with both fraud and — wait for it — witchcraft.
People are shocked. In modern-day Canada, in the year 2014, you can actually be charged under an obscure provision of the Criminal Code with “pretending to practice witchcraft.” The law specifically targets
Every one who fraudulently
(a) pretends to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration,
(b) undertakes, for a consideration, to tell fortunes, or
(c) pretends from his skill in or knowledge of an occult or crafty science to discover where or in what manner anything that is supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found
The charge is the equivalent of a misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $500 or a six-month jail term.
That the law appears as part of a larger section on “Fraudulent Practices” has not been evident in headlines about the case, which trumpet “Fake medium faces sorcery charge… in Canada” and mislead readers to think that Canada actually has a provision to prosecute witches… just like in the Salem Witch Trials or Monty Python.
I play it off like a joke, but in some parts of the world (such as Papua New Guinea, India, and parts of Africa) prosecution of witches is not a far-off piece of history, and it’s not something that targets fraudsters scamming the emotionally vulnerable. Rather, it’s based on genuine beliefs that witchcraft exists and is an offense that society’s deity expects to see punished.
Headlines like the ones being posted about Fofana’s case take advantage of such injustices, which typically target vulnerable minority populations in the places where they occur, to muddy the waters in the name of clickbait.
Let’s be clear: Canadian law enforcement is not exploiting a ridiculous and outdated law to charge Fofana. Nor are they expressing a sincerely-held belief that sorcery is real and worthy of punishment. Rather, they are charging Fofana with fraud using a section of the Criminal Code that specifically addresses charlatans who knowingly and intentionally defraud people through their supernatural claims.
ReligiousTolerance.org notes that
The law seems to be unevenly applied. Most newspapers contain advertisements by psychics; 900 lines are promoted on television; psychic fairs are periodically held in most large cities. One source estimates that there are in excess of 10,000 practicing psychics in Canada. Prosecutions are rare.
And that’s why this story is really interesting. Have all these psychics demonstrated sufficient belief in their own abilities to avoid prosecution? What does “sufficient belief” look like, anyway? What about money-making schemes wrapped up in socially-sanctioned supernatural beliefs?
After all, one reader’s fraudulent practice is another’s sacred cow. Exactly who gets to decide what gets prosecuted and what gets ignored?