Building community: Approaching WITCHfest North 2018

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With WITCHfest North, our purpose is to create and allow for a safe container during the month of October within which a diverse group of spiritual practitioners, artisans, retailers, and community members share their collective and individual wisdom, experiences, stories, and knowledge. As witches, we have been, and still are, rendered either historically invisible or highly visible and persecuted. October is the season of the witch, a time to celebrate ancestors, come together to share our harvest, and build community. We hope that in coming forward to share our knowledge we are working towards eradicating outdated and harmful stereotypes, and that everyone may engage in our programming with open minds and hearts.

Recent history

While most can recognize the section of the Canadian Criminal Code excerpted below as a protection for the public against fraud, it positions those of us who actually are magical practitioners or tarot readers as fraudulent or guilty until proven innocent by its implication. Section 365 of the Canadian Criminal Code was repealed in the summer of 2017, much to the relief of Pagans and witches across Canada. Section 365 (“Pretending to practise witchcraft, etc.”) of the Canadian Criminal Code: Everyone 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,
is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction. ((“R.S., c. C-34, s. 323,” Justice Laws Website, Government of Canada.))

Planning

During the summer of 2017, I had been thinking, planning, and casting a few spells behind the scenes, and putting out the call to various practitioners and businesses to see if building a visible witch community in Toronto was possible. I researched quietly, asked questions, gained vital experience, and waited for the right timing. The repeal came along at the perfect time, so to celebrate, and acknowledge the rising popularity of witchcraft, I decided to create a Toronto-wide witchcraft festival without funding, and on the fly. With nothing more than enthusiasm and a couple of hundred dollars to rent a few spaces, a small group of overworked but enthused volunteers put together a celebration of witches, Wiccans, Pagans, and women in the arts. WITCHfest North 2017: Out of the Broom Closet came and went, and the response was overwhelmingly supportive. It was a success, with connections being made by community members who had never met or mingled before.

Growth

I was a bit startled by all the attention I received. I was interviewed by Vice, the CBC, and CTV television.1 Our mayor sent a letter of welcome to the festival, and Salem’s mayor Kim Driscoll sent her good wishes via messenger. Being an introvert, this was a little unexpected and difficult at times, but if I had paused long enough to consider all that I would need to do, I may have gotten cold feet. After the warm glow of the fast-paced fest, we held a town hall in early November 2017 and asked for input from the community for the next WITCHfest North. We received a lot of constructive feedback and discussed better outreach to marginalized communities, youth councils, workshops, and discussion panels. I took copious notes and pondered. When creating a festival on zero budget, and not making a profit, basically breaking even can be tricky. So many good people have stepped in to assist I am overwhelmed with gratitude and humbled by the amount of talent and experience that people have shared with me.

RelatedPagan heritage: Connecting to your roots and finding common ground, by Emma Kathryn

RelatedTrancework in groups: Accessing mutual imagination, by Chrysanthemum White Alder

RelatedLong way home: Hail and Horn Gathering 2018, by John Farrell

WITCHfest 2018 and the Parliament of the World’s Religions

We did manage, and started talking about the upcoming year in January 2018. I reached out to a diverse community of varied spiritual and non-spiritual practitioners of all ages, creeds and gender identities and asked them if they would join the WITCHfest North advisory circle in which we could share ideas, feedback, and draft a mission and vision statement. Hearing everyone’s enthusiasm bolstered my confidence enough to do this crazy thing and expand our signature events, along with retail support and other community members. I went to our city hall and met with a couple of people from our city’s business development sector, and proudly proclaimed I was a witch and we have a voice. That’s not something I would have anticipated doing several years ago. Fortunately, I was well-received and subsequently we are receiving brochure distribution support from the City of Toronto and an event listing this year. For 2018, we are proud to be a pre-parliamentary event for the Parliament of the World’s Religions, where I am participating on a panel and collaborating with the Womynspirit Festival. In addition to this, we’ve grown to more than 30 volunteer advisors that ensure we are reaching out to all communities and are presenting ourselves with integrity, diversity and inclusivity, allowing us to solidify our vision.

RelatedHavamalWitches: We are the witches the Havamal warns you about, by Jade Pichette

Into the Night

Our 2018 theme, “Into the Night,” explores liminal and magical spaces where we can come out to explore communal shadows, visions, and inspirations. Eight out of 10 of our events are free to the public to encourage participation, and are primarily located downtown for accessibility. However, we are also supporting Pagan groups outside of the city. You can find festival information on the WITCHfest North Facebook page. As with most businesses, it has been a learning curve. My experience as a self-employed artist for more than 30 years of contract work here and there has honed my business skills. Having extensive experience sitting on not-for-profit boards, contractual agreements, volunteer coordination, and years of various AGMs has prepared me somewhat for the festival. I wanted to do something in line with my equity stance, and decided that rather than incorporate and find investments and become a bureaucratic machine, I would leave the structure loose and based on volunteerism and encourage trust, with the end-goal of creating a cohesive and visible community of artistic witches, Wiccans, Pagans and small business owners. Participating venues are responsible for their own witchy theme and are free to program their own events during the month of October.

RelatedHow to make sacred spaces into safe spaces, by Donyae Coles

Community

In 2017, our inaugural year, a few dedicated people started WITCHfest North, and this year the participation for planning from volunteers and community members has been phenomenal. I believe this festival is helping our community become more visible and interconnected while we retain our autonomy, as well as sharing our knowledge, creativity, and diversity with a non-practicing public to help eradicate stereotypes. I can’t adequately thank everyone for believing in this vision enough to pay it forward, attend, and pass on the word that we are here to stay. Please enjoy the festival in October 2018 and join us for next year as a participant, attendee, or volunteer. Have a witching good time!

Footnotes:

  1. Witches Monica Bodirsky, John Threlfall,” Tapestry, 7 December 2017. []
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2 COMMENTS

  1. You may find it interesting that the mother of a friend of mine was actually prosecuted under Section 365, in a landmark case. She was a well known psychic and reader, and was taken to court by a disgruntled patron. The key word “fraudulently” was used as her defense. The judge asked her to give him a reading. She so impressed him with her abilities that he declared that there was nothing “fraudulent” about her skills and threw the case out of court. She was the “real thing”.

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