09/05/2012 04:15 EDT | Updated 11/05/2012 05:12 EST

Wiccan Priest For B.C. Prison Inmates Cancelled For Now

VANCOUVER - Public Safety Minister Vic Toews appears less concerned about the quality of spells cast from behind bars than he is about a backlash from taxpayers, cancelling a Corrections Canada tender for a priest to nurture the spiritual needs of witches in prison.

Earlier this week, the federal prison agency put out a request for a proposal for a Wiccan chaplain in British Columbia who would provide about 17 hours of service a month, about an hour less service than the department says it needs for the Jewish faith.

About an hour after The Canadian Press reported on the contract, a statement from Toews's office said it will not proceed until after a review.

"Religious freedom is a paramount value in Canadian society," Julie Carmichael, director of communications for the minister, said in an email.

"However, the government is not convinced all services offered through the chaplaincy program reflect an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars."

A government official said Toews was not consulted about the Wiccan posting.

Guidance with casting spells, invocation of the gods and goddesses and rituals involving the four elements were among the services that could have been offered to inmates as part of the prison system's roster of available spiritual services.

"This has been put to tender because there is a need," Corrections spokesman David Harty said before the tender was cancelled.

"The requirement of these services is on-going. It has been used in the past."

Pat Stawski, a Wiccan priestess in Campbell River, B.C., said she's certain the program was pulled because of opposition and pressure within the government, and she's very disappointed.

"The prisoners have the right to their spiritual guidance, that is part of the charter," she said.

"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 worshipers, we're not bad people — we're just simple tree-huggers."

The tender included a generic job description and listed the pay as ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. The chaplain would be required to deliver Wiccan spiritual services, pastoral counselling and crisis intervention.

The applicant also would plan and lead Wiccan services "with ritual, teaching and meditation" to reduce stress and anger generated by incidents within the institution, or to commemorate the faith's holy days. It would be the applicant's role to create a "sanctuary atmosphere" within the prison chapel.

Meredith Kimber, a 35-year-old Wiccan priestess from Nanaimo, B.C., explained those tasks could translate into anything from common-sense counselling that simply comes from a like-minded person to full-fledged rituals conducted in the Wiccan tradition.

"Wiccan is so hush-hush, people hear the word witch and they freak out," Kimber said, initially thrilled to learn of the program. "There must be a high enough number within the inmates for this to be necessary."

She was not surprised to hear the posting was suddenly pulled.

"The Wiccan faith isn't recognized all over the place, for some reason there is a fear factor," she said. "I would hope that enough Wiccan people or clergy persons would speak out."

Some inmates have identified themselves as Wiccan going back more than two decades, said Sam Wagar, a 55-year-old priest who founded the Congregationalist Wiccan Association of B.C.

The umbrella group is recognized by the provincial government and governs four temples in the province whose clergy are also licensed to perform marriages.

It's difficult to get a statistic on how many people in B.C. practise the religion, but Kimber's temple reaches about 600 members by email alone. Some 2,500 people attended the Pagan Pride Festival in Nanaimo in 2010.

Wagar said he's aware of Wiccan services previously being required in a Vancouver Island prison and another in the B.C. Interior, and also in Ontario's Kingston and Warkworth institutions.

"Wiccans are human beings. Some human beings screw up and end up in jail," Wagar said. "They may still need the same kind of spiritual care as people from other religions who end up in jail."

According to the Corrections Canada tender that's specific to B.C., Roman Catholic chaplaincy services average five hours per week. Both Muslim and Sikh chaplaincy averages 57.83 hours per month, while Buddist chaplaincy averages 45 hours. Jewish chaplaincy averages 17.5 hours per month, while a designation called Community Chaplaincy averages 30 hours.

Wiccan chaplaincy would average 16.66 hours.

Even before the Corrections contract was killed, Wagar took issue with any potential public backlash for Wicca's inclusion in prison.

"Everybody who isn't a Christian differs from the mainstream. Big whoopee, get over it," he said. "We have a way of being spiritual, a way of connecting to the gods, a set of ethics and beliefs and they help us to live our lives better.

Setting up a Wiccan worship space in the chapel could potentially involve displaying the pentacle — a star inside a circle that is the faith's main symbol — the herb sage and candles, Kimber said.

She said she expects prisons would likely limit what materials could be brought inside for safety reasons.

A ritual might be performed for a number of auspicious days in the Wiccan calendar, such as "Sanheim" — a harvest festival that coincides with Halloween — and "Beltane," which occurs on May Day. Full-moons are celebrated as well.

Kimber said it was likely a chosen candidate would conduct various ritualistic ceremonies for the faithful too, modifying as necessary.

Such a ceremony would begin with a cleansing of the space to clear out negative energy, and then the Wiccans would cast their circle, she explained. Inmates would be invited to join, and the priest would then call on the goddesses and gods.

The priest would preach and spells might be cast.

"Spell casting is a form of prayer and a form of connecting with the divine," Wagar said. "It's a way of focusing your attention on goals you want to make, making commitments."