ST. CATHERINES, Ont. — A Canadian Pagan group says their Winter Solstice celebration was cancelled for being “too overtly Pagan.” The Dragon Ritual Drummers, a musical troupe headed by Witchdoctor Utu, planned to host a solstice ritual and concert at the Niagara Cannabis Club, but says the club canceled the event just hours before it was to start.
The Winter Solstice Witches Mass and Concert is an annual Ontario event, during which the Dragon Ritual Drummers usually perform. This year the group decided to host it themselves, and they picked the town of St. Catharines as the host city, as that’s where most of the band lives. Then, they began looking for a venue.
Witchdoctor Utu chose the Niagara Cannabis Club as the celebration site after what he says was a positive meeting. “The [Niagara Cannabis Club] in St. Catharines had no initial issues and were fairly excited at the notion of a whole pile of Pagans ascending on their building.” He said the club understood it was a Pagan winter solstice celebration, and they even introduced him to a few Pagans who were at the club that day. He said he was also introduced to the manager, Kelly Kush.
The Niagara Cannabis Club is a licensed cannabis society, where persons can pay a membership fee and bring in cannabis for their own consumption on site. The club’s mission is to assist “medical cannabis patients, caregivers, advocates and non-medical supporters.”
Utu says the friendly atmosphere plus the inexpensive venue fee of $5 per person sold him on using the club for their ritual space and concert scheduled for Dec. 16.
Utu says everything appeared to be going well, and they expected in excess of 50 people to attend the event, which was listed on the Club’s schedule of events. Then he received a communication from the club manager that concerned him.
“The night before the concert the manager Kelly Kush posted on the Facebook event wall, saying ‘Never been or seen anything like this’ ” says Utu. She was reportedly reacting to posts describing ritual work on both the event’s Facebook page as well as on Utu’s personal page.
Utu says that a few club members did comment that the ritual seemed scary, but interesting. He responded that there was nothing to worry about and it would be a fun time with good people. Kush and the others ‘liked’ his comment so he thought all was well and went to bed.
On Dec. 16, the day of the event itself, Utu says employee Abby Millar, who identifies as Wiccan, sent Utu a message. She said that Kush instructed her to make sure that there wasn’t “anything dark happening” at the ritual. Utu says she specifically asked about “freaky idols.”
“I decided to call and see what their issue was, but at this point I was surprised and starting to wonder what was actually going on, what was the sudden change,” says Utu. He says that he explained to Millar that the ritual was a simple winter solstice ritual, open and inclusive, and didn’t include anything dark or evil. He says the club responded that they hadn’t known anything Pagan was happening at the event.
Kush and Millar confirmed that they were, in fact, concerned about the ritual. According to their account, they originally thought that the event was going to be a concert only. They said that the ritual was a surprise, and they learned about it only through Facebook on the day prior to the event.
Millar said that, over the phone, Utu described the ritual as consisting “of individual dresses in black cloaks with daggers, they would sing and chant, and pass a ceremonial [goblet] filled with wine around to symbolize the orgy part. Then at the end they have a doll with horns or goat head and give thanks.”
According to both Millar and Kush, this ritual seemed a little “dark” for the club. They also were concerned that the working would focus on “revenge,” bringing unwanted negativity into their space. Kush says that they knew the group was Pagan or Wiccan, but, what they didn’t know was that Utu practiced Voodoo. As Kush explains, she learned this fact only after reviewing Utu’s personal Facebook page, and seeing photos from a private Voodoo ritual held earlier that week in his basement.
“I let him know that we simply weren’t comfortable with any of it, and also were a little upset that he never once let us know or asked about this prior,” says Millar.
Shortly after the Dec. 16 call ended, Kush posted the cancellation on Facebook, writing, “Well after checking more into this, we’ve decided we are not having goats heads and baby dolls …location will not be at this club.”
The Dragon Ritual Drummers haven’t encountered problems like this in the past, says Utu, and have performed at city run events, parades, and other community events.
Millar herself had seen the group play many times, and called their performances “amazing.” She adds that the festivals, where she saw them play, “were also […] Pagan events that [were] neither dark not negative. So I vouched for them a lot.” That made the situation more difficult.
“The Niagara Cannabis club and Kelly are all about promoting peace, positivity, and helping patients get the help they need,” says Millar. “Everyone there, myself included are more than open and love to experience new things. However spreading negativity and misleading people is not something that we would welcome.”
But Utu has a different view of the situation. He says that the Dragon Ritual Drummers never intended to have any goat-head related items in the ritual, nor was there going to be chanting or wine.
He also says that he has a very clear idea on why the venue cancelled the event, “Despite a 7th generation Wiccan in their midst, an event so overtly Pagan was just too much for them, with remarks like goat heads and baby dolls, there is a clear bias there and an evocative assumption of what was going to happen.
“As much as I was upset I offered to just drop the ritual part, and just about everyone attending would have been equally disappointed, but it was now two hours before the event was to begin and folks were driving in from half an hour to an hour to three hours away.”
Tyler Coleman, a Canadian attorney living in Minnesota, says situations where a venue is alleged to discriminate against a religious group are rare in Canada, and there are many variables to determine if discrimination took place. “Do religious groups have a right to not be discriminated against. Yes. But it depends on the property rights of the club, if they’ve allowed other religious groups to use their facilities, and what their cancellation policy is.”
Mr. Coleman said individuals or groups who feel they have been discriminated against can petition the Human Rights Tribunal. The process is similar to mediation, but more casual and parties are encouraged to talk through the situation and arrive at a mutual solution.
Since the cancellation, the club says that they have received no backlash, nobody showed up that night waiting for the show, and they would not have any problem with other Pagan events. “It is too bad. We were looking forward to meeting new people and having a winter celebration, just not wanting the Voodoo part. We are really about peace and helping others.”
As for Utu and the Dragon Ritual Drummers, they will move on and continue to perform around Canada and the U.S. Their schedule is posted on their website.