Just days before its scheduled June 5 opening, the P.E.I. Women’s Festival was told it was unwelcome at Camp Gencheff, a summer camp for young people with disabilities.

Organizers expected to draw about 150 women from across Atlantic Canada for a weekend “whimsical celebration of witches,” including a seance, a workshop on casting spells, and a “Bitches Ball,” where women could “dance till the bitching hour.”

Camp Gencheff is dependent on support from churches and the community. Board member Terry Tanner, pastor of Central Christian Church in Charlottetown, told the media that when the directors learned details of the weekend programme, they feared a sharp reduction in support and cancelled their verbal contract with the organizers.

Some islanders believe it was long overdue.

Throughout its 15-year history, the festival has included elements of New Age religion, the occult, and lesbianism. The 1991 festival, with the theme, “MotherWise: Our Selves, Our Children, Our Earth,” included a “Lesbian Herstory Slideshow.”

A follow-up Women’s Spirituality Conference at UPEI taught chanting, circle dancing, and “connecting with the earth and the goddess.” It ended with plans to celebrate the winter solstice, an ancient Druid celebration.

In 1995, one session, called “Intuition, Energy, and Auras,” was led by self-professed psychic Debbie Berrigan. Other sessions included chanting, massage, belly dancing, and snake dancing.

At the 1992 festival, Dr. Jerri Wine (formerly of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education), talked of a rebirth of ancient goddess religion. She advised women to be “constantly aware of the goddess within themselves,” and directed a “grounding and centering exercise” adapted from the witch Starhawk’s Spiral Dance. Calling herself a feminist therapist, Wine also encouraged masturbation and lesbian sex as “natural expressions of women’s sexuality.”

“Her sessions were explicitly spiritual, and explicitly sexual. This kind of spirituality is at the core of the feminist movement and is in essence its religion. More and more, women who join for other purposes are converted to it,” said Linda Morrison Durant, who attended Wine’s sessions.

Further concerns were outlined in a editorial letter in The Charlottetown Guardian supporting Camp Gencheff’s directors. It pointed out the inherent danger in indulging in occult practices. “(Such practices are) doors which lead to the influence of the diabolical spirits …(It is important) to make people aware that such practices as seances and spells, even in fun, may unknowingly invoke evil spirits whose influences on people may not be readily noticeable.”

Sandy Kowalik, one of this year’s festival organizers, has a different view. “In 1998, that there is still a persecution of that theme that is shocking.” She maintains that a witch “is just a wise woman that understands the cycles of the earth, who understands plants and herbs, and the power of positive thinking. Their bad reputation simply isn’t warranted,” she says.

She has not ruled out taking legal action against Camp Gencheff.

The organizing committee quickly accepted an offer to relocate the festival to a camp owned and operated by Scouts Canada.