Strippers ready to go underground

Foreign strippers at Canadian venues as far apart as Toronto, Windsor, London, Montreal, Ottawa,...

Foreign strippers at Canadian venues as far apart as Toronto, Windsor, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary say they are ready to stop dancing and head underground if their work permits are cancelled. (TOM GODFREY/QMI Agency)

Tom Godfrey, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:00 PM ET

TORONTO – Canada's foreign strippers say they are ready to step out of the spotlight and into the shadowy half-world of illicit employment.

They claim they will go underground if Bill C-38 becomes law and ends work permits allowing non-residents to work as strippers across the country.

The omnibus bill, now headed for its second reading in Parliament, will mean up to 700 strippers in Canada on work visas will have to return home since they won't be able to extend their stays. Either that, or they will seek illicit ways to earn a living, including resorting to massage parlour work.

Most of the dancers work at clubs in Toronto, Windsor, London, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Calgary.

Adrienne, 23, of Hungary, is one stripper who maintains she will seek alternative means of support. She and 10 other dancers were sponsored by one Toronto strip club and their visas are set to expire in a couple of months.

They would normally be granted a visa extension since they've met all immigration requirements, including having fixed addressed and clean police records.

A former medical student, Adrienne, said working as a dancer allowed her to leave Budapest and earn money to send home to her mom, who has heart problems and requires expensive medication.

"I am worried sick," Adrienne said. "I have a sick mom and two sisters and a brother that I support at home."

She was sponsored here 18 months ago and her bosses claim she's never missed a shift or been in trouble.

"I like the work and the people in Canada," Adrienne said. "I want to make some money and to resume my studies to become a medical doctor."

She said many women have said they'll remain in Canada illegally if they cannot obtain a visa.

"My whole world just collapsed in front of me," Adrienne said. "I have to keep making money somehow to send back to my family."

Former dancer Nicole, 36, also of Hungary, now works as a liaison between Toronto clubs and foreign strippers to ensure the women are not being victimized or preyed upon by organized crime.

"Most of the dancers leave home because of the poverty and to seek their dreams," Nicole said. "Every single one of them sends money back home to help their families."

She said most of the earlier dancers arrived from European countries like Poland, Hungary or Romania. Now they're touching down from Mexico and other Latin and South American countries.

"These dancers are not victims of human trafficking as the government claim," Nicole says. "These girls want to be here working and making money to send home."

She has talked to "several hundred" dancers in the Greater Toronto Area whose visas are expiring.

"Many don't understand why they are being penalized," Nicole said. "They work hard and pay taxes and do everything that is asked of them."

The sweeping Bill C-38 will bring an end to an era of foreign dancers in Canada.

The controversial "stripper visa" dates back to 1998 and allowed hundreds of foreign dancers into the country each year. In 2001 for example, 660 foreign dancers, mostly from Eastern Europe, were admitted.

All they had to do was provide a Canadian job offer from a strip club and prove they were qualified for exotic dancing.

While the Tories essentially axed that program soon after taking office, roughly 100 of those visas have been renewed each year since 2006.

"Now we have the power, which we'll begin using as soon as those regulations are done this summer, to deny visas to people who we think ... might have a high chance of trafficking or exploitation," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said of the proposed changes.

Under the new regulations, all existing temporary work visas to foreign-born strippers will be cancelled, all new applications will be denied and all "open" work visa holders will be barred from working in the adult entertainment industry.

Kenney's spokesperson Alexis Pavlich said her officials have invested significant resources in removing people who are in Canada illegally.

"To anyone who wants to go underground, we have a simple message: Don't do it," Pavlich said. "We will find you. We will kick you out."

She said the NDP and Liberals are playing partisan games by delaying C-38.

"Canadians have told us that they want to stop foreigners coming to Canada to work in the sex trade," Pavlich said. "(The opposition parties) have voted against every piece of legislation we've introduced to stop exotic dancers who are vulnerable to exploitation from entering Canada."

And as the bill drags through Parliament, members of the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada are worried that the strippers it will govern are already being lured into the underground sex trade.

"A lot of people are out there trying to lure the dancers into prostitution or in other areas," said association spokesman Tim Lambrinos. "The women know they can elude authorities if they work as a prostitute or in a massage parlour."

His office has been fielding calls from dozens of "worried" dancers across Canada who don't want to return home.

"They gave up everything to get here and they don't want to go back to a life of poverty," Lambrinos says. "Many have told me that they are not going back home."

He estimates most of the more than 700 dancers here on permits won't be returning.

"They are used to a certain lifestyle here," Lambrinos said. "They also have their families to support at home."

He said the feds should also be halting visas for foreign seasonal workers in the agricultural or farming trades.

Support for strippers has plummeted ever since MP Judy Sgro, a former Liberal immigration minister, resigned in 2000 after facing accusations that she fast-tracked a stripper who worked on her campaign.

It turned out that a special residency permit was issued to Alina Balaican, 25, of Romania, who helped to work on her campaign in a scandal dubbed "Strippergate."

And the feds point to local exploitation as a final reason to slash the stripper visa.

A Mississauga man was jailed for nine years in January for kidnapping exotic dancers and forcing them to work in the sex trade.

Omar McFarlane, 31, was found guilty in Brampton, Ont., court last May 8 of offences including human trafficking and kidnapping with a firearm.

McFarlane would meet dancers at Mississauga-area strip clubs, befriend them and enter into romantic relationships with them. He would then kidnap them at gunpoint and force them into sex trade.


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