According to Alayah Esotera, there is only one pagan witch in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta -- her.
And her religion, she believes, is at the centre of a clash between her, the city and a disgruntled neighbour.
Esotera told CTVNews.ca over text that while her neighbour has reported her for perceived bylaw infractions numerous times before since he moved in a year ago, the situation kicked up a notch during the month of June.
Her neighbour was having trouble selling his home, Esotera said, and he believed that the pagan artwork displayed in her backyard was scaring off potential buyers.
In a June 14 video that she posted on Twitter, she can be heard arguing with a man and a woman who she identifies as the neighbours in question.
“I’m a witch! That’s what I do, I talk to the ghosts, I talk to the energies,” she says in the video.
“I’m not going to sit there and take down my s*** because you guys are nervous about paganism.”
The other woman answers, “We are trying to sell this house. We are losing $50,000. We have had people on his text messages saying, ‘We see the signs” -- seemingly referring to pagan artwork in Esotera’s backyard.
At one point in the argument, the woman exclaims, “No one’s going to live here because no one in Fort Saskatchewan is f****** pagan!”
“I’m the only pagan in Fort Saskatchewan, so all of you people think it’s OK to do this to me! There’s nothing wrong with what I have in my backyard!” Esotera yells back.
So what exactly was in her backyard?
The pagan art, or “rituals” that are displayed behind her house amid more typical backyard fare such as flowers and food gardens, include a bust of a horned figure, a second bust with a stylized skull, a large mural, and what Esotera calls “a spider home,” among other objects and figures.
The spider home is exactly what it sounds like: a structure designed to appeal to spiders so they will come and live inside it.
It also happens to look like a giant spider with a human torso.
On June 10, police officers showed up at Esotera’s house after her neighbour complained. In a video she recorded of the interaction, she leads them through her backyard and explains the pagan artwork and what it means to her.
An officer in the video can be heard telling Esotera that “when we have stuff in our yards, we have to make sure that it’s not like, unsightly, or whatever.
“This is a little scary for people looking over the fence.”
The 42-year-old told CTVNews.ca that she has been pagan for almost her entire life, and that her paganism is defined by a connection to nature, and worshiping gods that are connected to natural forces.
Bylaw officers told Esotera on June 12 that she had until June 19 to remove three specific things in her backyard: the skull and horned busts which Esotera said represented the Sun and the Earth to her respectively, as well as the spider home.
But Esotera said the busts she’d been asked to remove were pivotal to her summer solstice celebrations on June 20 -- one of the most important days of the year for pagans.
In a June 12 video, one officer says that they have no “judgement” against Esotera for her religion, and that they simply have to deal with the complaint they received from her neighbour.
A copy of the relevant bylaws, which Esotera was given by the bylaw officers and which she shared with CTVNews.ca, explain that homeowners can be given a “nuisance” fine.
A spokesperson with the city of Fort Saskatchewan told CTVNews.ca over email that they were aware of the specific complaint against this property, but that they could not comment on the specifics.
“There is nothing in our Community Standards Bylaw that forbids the display of religious symbols,” the statement added, saying the “nature of the call to Municipal Enforcement” was purely related to the definition of the “nuisance” bylaw.
Being a “nuisance” according to the bylaw, “includes any use of or activity upon any property which is offensive to any Person, or has or may have a detrimental impact upon any Person or other property in the neighbourhood.”
The city said that the fine for this citation was $250.
But Esotera believes that her religious artwork really had nothing to do with whether or not her neighbour could sell their home.
While the design of the spider home may seem off-putting to some, it’s also smaller than a basketball, and is placed on a post in Esotera’s backyard. Esotera says the artwork and religious items that bylaw officers told her to remove are not visible from the street -- one can only see them if you look deliberately over the fence into her backyard. She believes that horror movies have contributed to people classifying pagan aesthetics as frightening.
Moving the spider home could kill or hurt spiders living inside of it, she said.
Fearing the fines, Esotera started a GoFundMe in preparation, and turned to the witch community online, asking for fellow pagans and witches to help her stand up against “pagan persecution.”
June 19 went by, and no bylaw officers showed up. Esotera celebrated the summer solstice, and then willingly took down the bust that was her tribute to her sun god.
Finally, she got the news that the case had been closed, and the fines were dropped.
Bylaw officers told her that her neighbour has successfully sold his house after all -- despite her artwork remaining up, she said.
It’s a resolution that leaves a sour taste in her mouth.
“They repeatedly said it was because [the neighbours] sold their house,” she said. “It had nothing to do with my pagan rights.
“I’m definitely not happy with how the city handled this. They say it’s all resolved, but I lost two weeks of business time, stressed to the point I shake.”
Esotera’s husband is the main income provider, but she makes ritual items and wax candles to sell on Etsy.
“This is the most I think I’ve ever cried,” she said, reflecting on the stressful month.
She believes that bylaw officers should’ve known the summer solstice was important to her.
“From previous complaints against me they already knew I celebrate my holidays those times, but did this to me anyways,” she said. “Nothing like being made to feel like nothing in your own community.”
Her fear is that this will continue to happen, even with a new owner living next door, and that she will remain vulnerable to the perception of others.
‘What I want people to take from this is stand up for what you believe in,” she said.
“[And] I want everyone to know that this isn’t really a win, it’s just being put on hold until the next person decides to complain.”