Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Witches enjoy same rights as other Canadians

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Public Safety Minister Vic Toews likely dodged the wrath of taxpayers last week when he cancelled a tender to provide the services of a priest for witches inside Canada's prisons, but you can bet there's more trouble brewing down the road.

Clearly, any decision to deny a Wiccan chaplain for inmates would not survive a court challenge based on Charter rights that guarantee freedom of religion or even expression.

But that eventuality didn't stop Toews, who most likely feared a public paddling when word got out about a plan for the Correctional Service of Canada to pay as much as $50,000 a year for someone to provide about 17 hours of spiritual services a month.

The Canadian Press first reported on the call for tenders, but within hours Toews's office had issued a statement suggesting the plan was off the table pending further review.

"Religious freedom is a paramount value in Canadian society," said ministry spokesperson Julie Carmichael. "However, the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

Ain't that the truth.

But the inconvenient reality is that all Canadians -- whether they're in jail or not -- are guaranteed freedom of religion under our nation's Constitution. It doesn't matter if they're practising Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or, in this case, witches.

Part of the problem is that most of us tend to get bogged down in the Hollywood depiction of those who like to call themselves witches -- imagining them making sacrifices, stirring a boiling cauldron or casting nasty spells on their enemies.

But Pat Stawski, a Wiccan priestess in Campbell River, B.C., told The Canadian Press that's simply not the case.

"People have ancient views of Wiccan or paganism, people have a very negative image and it's taken a long time to get people to understand we're not devil worshippers, we're not bad people -- we're just simple tree-huggers."

Without getting into a debate about the merits of her beliefs, it's safe to say most Canadians celebrate and embrace the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Charter and don't take kindly to having them stripped away on a political whim or for the sake of political expediency.

The Conservative government should take a long, hard look at its decision to cancel the tender for fear of a public backlash and consider the dangerous precedent its decision could set for other religious groups.

As Canadians, we all expect and deserve the protections afforded by the Charter. Why shouldn't witches enjoy the same right?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 11, 2012 A7

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