November 27, 2004 - 11:02

Martin backs Immigration Minister Judy Sgro in face of stripper scandal


OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (CP) - Prime Minister Paul Martin gave his embattled immigration minister an unequivocal vote of confidence Saturday in the face of a growing scandal over her department's role in entry permits for foreign strippers.

Martin, in Burkino Faso for the Francophonie summit, offered a curt reply when asked by reporters whether he would fire Judy Sgro or accept her resignation if it was offered.

"No . . . on both counts," Martin said. "I'm very confident in the minister of immigration."

Sgro has been under fire in the House of Commons this week over the involvement by her chief of staff, Ihor Wons, in a Romanian stripper's visa troubles and in a controversial program which sees foreign peelers getting special work visas.

Sgro has defended the government's policy of admitting foreign exotic dancers to work in Canada, saying the strip club business is "a strong industry" with "lots of customers."

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper called it "breathtaking hypocrisy" for the government to complain about sexual exploitation of women while importing strippers.

The Conservatives, who have been careful to make their accusations in the Commons, where they are protected from slander laws, claim Wons gave special consideration to Romanian stripper Alina Balaican, who is said to have worked on Sgro's re-election campaign.

They also say Wons met a Toronto strip-club owner who had donated $5,500 to Liberal campaign coffers and discussed importing strippers from the Caribbean.

Sgro conceded she has little enthusiasm for the program, which allows strippers into the country on special visas, but said the exotic dance industry can't find enough native talent and has the right to ask for imports.

She said she hopes to get rid of the program and deal with requests on a case-by-case basis.

Martin, who was wrapping up his visit to Burkino Faso on Saturday, pointed out that it was Sgro herself who referred the issue to Canada's ethics commission.