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Montreal crackdown on massage parlours sparks debate as Supreme Court ruling looms

MONTREAL — Their bright neon signs have become more common on Montreal's streets, and the services offered can go far beyond simple relief from aches and pains.

Some even brazenly declare "XXX massage" in the window.

But these days Montreal's illicit massage parlours, viewed as a haven for prostitution and even human trafficking, are coming under increased scrutiny.


December 16, 2013
By Benjamin Shingler The Canadian Press

Newly elected mayor Denis Coderre has made a crackdown on the parlours one of his first orders of business at city hall.

Coderre wants to introduce legislation against them that would include hefty fines.

The
move isn’t without detractors, however. It’s part of a larger debate
about the sex trade that has made its way to the Supreme Court of
Canada.

This Friday, Canada’s top court will bring down a landmark decision on the legality of the country’s anti-prostitution laws.

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Prostitution
isn’t illegal in Canada, but many of the activities associated with
prostitution are classified as criminal offences — including operating a
brothel, living off the avails and soliciting.

The Supreme Court must decide whether to keep Canada’s current prostitution laws, throw them out or offer an alternative.

Depending
on Friday’s ruling, erotic massage parlours like the ones popping up
all over Montreal could, conceivably, become licensed, regulated venues
for the sex trade.

As it stands, the establishments often hold a permit as a legitimate therapeutic massage business, hiding their true purpose.

Montreal
has an estimated 350 illicit massage parlours operating across the city
and many more in its suburbs. Other cities have already taken steps to
crack down on them.

Toronto introduced a bylaw this year making a
distinction between massage parlours and erotic ones, and limiting the
number of licenses available for erotic ones.

Police in Calgary,
meanwhile, raided a massage parlour in late October. Authorities shut it
down for allegedly serving as a front for prostitution.

These days much of the focus has been on Montreal.

The
city has long been seen as a hub for prostitution with a bustling
red-light district. Today, many of the strip clubs in Montreal’s
once-seedy centre have closed down, and the street-level prostitution
driven out, to make way for condos and office buildings.

But the erotic massage parlours persist across the city.

More
than 70 per cent of Montreal prostitution now takes place in such
venues, according to a new survey by CLES, a group that advocates
against sexual exploitation of women.

CLES supports the new mayor’s efforts, said spokeswoman Eliane Legault-Roy.

"We’re
really happy that there’s the political will to act on exploitation of
women," she said. "We just hope resources will also be put in place to
help women exit prostitution."

Police have already made a string
of arrests since Coderre’s announcement last month. One case involved
the alleged sexual exploitation of young Romanian women.

The
federal government also announced last week the creation of an RCMP unit
headquartered in the city to fight human-trafficking in Canada and
abroad.

Emilie Laliberte, the head of a Montreal sex-trade
support and advocacy group says the timing of such actions is no
coincidence, with the Supreme Court ruling looming.

"It’s clear
they’re trying to make a clear link between sex work on the one hand,
and human trafficking and sexual exploitation on the other," said
Laliberte, director of Stella.

In Laliberte’s view, the issue isn’t so simple.

Not
everyone working in the sex trade is a victim of trafficking, she said.
And many workers at massage parlours are worried police action could
drive sex work further underground, leading to more dangerous work
conditions.

"What we’re saying is, ‘yes’ to cracking down on violence, but not on the backs of workers," Laliberte said.

She’s hopeful the Supreme Court ruling in favour of legalization will usher in a new approach toward the sex trade.

France is one country considering such a step.

Its
lower house in parliament passed a bill last week that would
decriminalize some of the acts around prostitution in an attempt to
better tackle the issue of human trafficking.

The law is intended to make it easier for trafficked women to remain in France if they get out of prostitution.

Montreal is taking a different path.

Anie
Samson, the borough mayor overseeing the effort to curb erotic massage
parlours, said she’s hopeful the crackdown will help make city
neighbourhoods safer for families.

Samson said she noticed a huge
upswing in licensing applications for massage parlours in her borough
at the beginning of 2013. It has since put a moratorium on further
applications.

She described a triplex in her neighbourhood where
there are illicit massage parlours on two of the floors, with people
coming and going at all hours. A family lives on the other.

"There’s not even a sign. They do all the advertising online," said Samson, mayor of Villeray-Saint-Michel-Parc-Extension.

"There are children who live around there."


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