Scandal Renews Debate on Program to Import ‘Exotic Dancers’
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page A12
TORONTO — Coiled around a brass pole on a barroom stage, clad only in towering stiletto heels, a 31-year-old Romanian woman named Veronica is helping to fill what has suddenly become Canada’s most talked-about shortage: a scarcity of strippers.
A government program to import hundreds of “exotic dancers,” which was already controversial, took center stage recently when Canada’s immigration minister, Judy Sgro, was found to have given preferential visa treatment to a nude dancer who did volunteer work in her reelection campaign for Parliament.
Critics say the program turns Canada into a pimp, while local employers assert it serves a legitimate business, and dancers from struggling countries say it’s a way to better their lives.
“This has been a great job,” said Veronica, a native of Brasov, who declined to identify herself further. “This has given me a better opportunity for life. I could never go to school and work in Romania.”
Nude dancers come here under one of several programs aimed at recruiting foreign workers with specialties sorely needed in Canada. Last year, the country imported more than 19,000 construction workers, almost 5,000 nannies and 1,560 university professors. In addition, 661 work permits were issued or renewed for foreign exotic dancers.
Immigration agents selected the dancers from portfolios that showed past work experience, a legitimate job offer and usually a publicity photo. A large majority have come from Romania, partly because a study showed female Romanian immigrants tended to be well educated and make few demands for public services.
Many of the immigrants come to clubs in Toronto, where they strip on stage and perform private dances at customers’ tables or in “VIP rooms” for extra tips. Critics say the women are exploited and pressured to perform sexual services. The club owners deny it.
“No sex goes on here,” Michael, manger of the glitzy, chrome-and-glass club where Veronica dances, said on condition that his surname and the club name not be used. “We are a legitimate business. We pay lots of taxes. We employ people who buy homes and cars and pay taxes. We are just offering fantasy, just like lots of other entertainment businesses. Just like the Dallas Cowgirls,” referring to the cheerleaders for the Dallas Cowboys football team.
Prostitution is not illegal in most of Canada, but soliciting for prostitution is, and sexual acts at a club could bring legal charges of running a “bawdy house.”
“We always say we sell the sizzle, but not the steak,” said Tim Lambrinos, executive director of the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada. “No sex is allowed. Can I say it never happens? It happens in broadcasters’ offices, in teachers’ lounges, in government offices, in airplanes. It probably happens less often in our clubs.
“I think this whole thing has come up because some people are uptight and uneasy about nudity.”
The uproar over the importing of strippers has intensified in the past several weeks, with newspapers chiding the government for being involved in an unseemly business, and Sgro and others like her fighting to keep their jobs. This past week, the government announced it would end the special program, though exotic dancers can still obtain visas by applying individually for jobs if their employers prove they cannot find Canadians to fill the positions.
Jack Layton, a member of Parliament and head of the opposition New Democratic Party, said government involvement should be ended altogether. “When you get money for helping to get young women to be available for the sexual desires of Canadian men, it’s called pimping,” he said.
Sgro said she did not like the program either, but that it filled a “labor market need” and that without it, “you’d have to wipe out the whole industry.”
Maria Iadinardi, a spokeswoman for the Citizenship and Immigration department, said it granted the work permits because “exotic dancing is a legal occupation. The employers own legal businesses. But we are very vigilant to ensure they are bona fide dancers, to avoid trafficking of individuals for prostitution.”
Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said that ending the program would only force the trade to go underground. He started studying the program a decade ago, seeking to close it down, but later concluded that the legal process, which included official inspections of clubs, protected women from gang-controlled sex traffickers.
In fact, the government steered the recruiting of exotic dancers to Romania after studying female immigrants from that region. The study showed the women often spoke English or French, drew little medical care and became good Canadian citizens if they stayed in the country, Kurland said. Eighty-three percent of the exotic dancers given work permits in 2003 came from Romania.
Many eventually find legal ways to stay. Alina Balaican, 25, arrived two years ago from Romania and married a Canadian a year later. But when she ran into visa problems, she and her husband went to Sgro’s office for help. They both wound up volunteering in her reelection campaign in June, after which Sgro signed papers giving Balaican temporary residency, effectively jumping a queue of 700,000 applicants. When the case was leaked to the news media, it brought howls of favoritism.
“Giving special favors because you do something for a politician is the hallmark of a banana republic,” complained Diane Ablonczy, an opposition member of parliament.
The political frenzy grew when newspapers reported that Sgro’s top aide, Ihor Wons, had prowled a Toronto strip club to discuss work permits for nude dancers with the owner. Sgro said the aide was just doing good constituent service. Kurland mocked that assertion: “A drunken chief of staff handing out immigration passes in a strip club is a problem.”
Both support and opposition of the visa program have come from unexpected sources. Some women’s groups, for instance, say the program’s abolition would curtail the rights of immigrant women.
But Mary Taylor, a former exotic dancer in Toronto who now sells videos and books to teach stripping, said she favors stopping the program.
“It’s not dancing,” she sniffed. “I want to bring entertainment back, dancing back. Sitting on somebody’s lap in a dark VIP room . . . is not dancing.”