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Feb. 22, 2006

New government revisits visas for exotic dancers

By Hannah James

Canada has come under fire for allowing the hiring of poor foreign women to strip in its clubs. Critics say the workers get flimsy three-month permits that offer little to no financial and physical protection. Recent changes to the work program are giving critics hope that Canada is about to clean up its act.

"The new government dumped enough criticism on the scheme in Opposition to allow for cautious optimism the scheme may be on its very last days," says Gregory Carlin, director of the Irish Anti-Trafficking Coalition, the largest group of its kind in the British Isles.

As of Feb. 1, Citizenship and Immigration Canada modified its online information about hiring temporary foreign workers to work as exotic dancers. It notes, "Employers who wish to hire temporary foreign exotic dancers are required to seek individual labour market opinion" from Human Resources Skills Development Canada. The form says HRSDC will "conduct individual assessments of applications for foreign exotic dancers before issuing a labour market opinion," which the agency says is consistent with how it considers requests for other types of foreign workers.

The new application stipulates changes to the employment contracts, making work in Canada safer for foreign women than before. Some changes include: longer employment contracts (one year rather than the former three months), 30 guaranteed hours of work per week, dancers keep all gratuities and tips, no physical contact between the dancer and patron, the employer must assist the employee with applying for public health care and insurance coverages, and the employer must also pay for transportation from and to the dancer's home country.

Last week, Citizenship and Immigration Canada had issued one work permit for an exotic dancer since Jan. 1 and renewed permits for six other foreign women. One woman is from France, one is from Mexico, two are from the Czech Republic and three are from Romania.

Currently, several Canadian strip clubs, including a couple in London, Ont., are running ads targeting Romanian women on the Xotic Dancer Xchange, saying there's an urgent need for foreign women to work in their clubs.

"The Xotic Dancer Xchange issue … is not something which has done a great deal of good for Canada's reputation in Romania," says Carlin.

When asked about the legitimacy of the "urgent" online job postings, Carlin, who has been consulted by Canadian government officials on the risks associated with hiring poor foreign women to work in a profession that is subterranean at the best of times, has a no-nonsense response. He says there is no shortage of exotic dancers in Canada.

In 2005, Liberal Deputy Prime Minster Anne McLellan announced that the Exotic Dancer Visa program in Canada had been shut down, but it was later discovered that the government had still been issuing the permits - just not under that name. Then Citizenship and Immigration Minister Joe Volpe said that the government would be issuing permits on a case-by-case basis and that exotic dancing is a legitimate job and should be treated as such.

In opposition to the former Liberal government, Conservative MP and immigration critic Diane Ablonczy vociferously challenged the Exotic Dancer Visa program and condemned the Liberals, saying they were lying to Canadians when they said the controversial program had been shut down. The Calgary Nose-Hill MP's website contains the Hansard transcripts of her pointed attacks on the Liberals.

Because of her criticisms of the Liberal-run Citizenship and Immigration Canada department and her familiarity with its portfolio, Ablonczy was expected by some people to be named citizenship and immigration minister. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose Monte Solberg, former finance and international affairs critic, to handle the job.

No one from Solberg's office was available for comment.