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Canada Invites Strippers and Gets Scrutiny

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.

An ad encourages calls to Sgro, who was found to have given preferential visa treatment to a dancer who did volunteer work for her campaign. (Chris Wattie -- Reuters)

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.

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