|CanWest News Service|
OTTAWA - Human Resources Development Canada gave foreign strippers a blanket exemption to work in Canada despite warnings from inside the government the women would be forced into prostitution at clubs controlled by organized crime, according to federal documents.
Despite alarm bells about organized crime's involvement in the importation of exotic dancers, Pierre Pettigrew, then human resources minister, approved the special exemption on April 28, 1998, under a labour mobility program.
Mr. Pettigrew, now Foreign Affairs Minister, and successive human resources ministers ignored calls to cancel the program from officials in other departments who said it promoted the trafficking of "vulnerable women" for "illegal sex activities in Canada."
Memos obtained under Access to Information by Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland reveal Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) knew foreign strippers, mainly from eastern Europe, would be forced into prostitution at clubs run by organized crime.
Officials at Citizenship and Immigration and other departments voiced strong objections to the blanket exemption, and recounted horror stories of exotic dancers being forced into sexual slavery in Canada.
"Having heard many stories from returning applicants of how they suffered abuse at the hands of their employers and were little more than indentured servants [often having passports confiscated and being unable to leave until their airfare was fully paid], we are extremely hesitant to send women into this profession," an April 8, 1998, memo from Citizenship and Immigration said.
"Reports have emphasized that this profession is very closely linked with organized crime [as it is in Europe] and that the primary concern is what faces these women in Canada."
The memo also expressed frustration that HRDC pushed ahead with the exemption even though it contradicted Canada's foreign policy against global trafficking in women. Other internal documents obtained by CanWest News Service show senior HRDC officials were repeatedly urged over the past six years to cancel the special exemption, yet refused to do so.
Daniel Jean, assistant deputy minister at Citizenship and Immigration, wrote to his HRDC counterpart, Phil Jensen, on May 31, 2003, to register concern about the involvement of criminal syndicates in trafficking of foreign strippers.
"There is increased vulnerability of exploitation of the dancers stemming from a demand for increased level of contact with club patrons and an alleged involvement of organized crime in the industry," Mr. Jean wrote.
In a June 9, 2004, letter, Mr. Jean again complained about the increase in the trafficking of exotic dancers from eastern Europe, as well as Asia, into Canada for prostitution.
"In this movement, many vulnerable women are being misled, exploited and trafficked to support illegal sex trade activities in Canada," Mr. Jean wrote to Karen Jackson, assistant deputy minister of workplace skills at HRDC.
A senior government official said intimidation by organized crime in the adult entertainment business led HRDC to set up the fast-track program for foreign strippers.
The program came to light after it was revealed that Immigration Minister Judy Sgro fast-tracked a Romanian stripper who had worked on her re-election campaign.
The program gave blanket permission for strip club owners to bring in foreign exotic dancers without having to show they could not find anyone to fill the job in Canada.
Human Resources Minister Joe Volpe finally cancelled the special exemption on Dec. 15, but he had to battle his own officials who feared HRDC field officers could face retaliation from organized crime.
Senior HRDC officials informed Mr. Volpe's office the special exemption was given to foreign dancers because they didn't want their front-line officers to deal with strip club owners on a case-by-case basis.
Attempts to determine why Mr. Pettigrew approved the special exemption were unsuccessful. His spokesman, Sebastien Theberge, referred all inquiries to Mr. Volpe's office.
According to an April 14, 1998, memo, Bradley Pascoe, an Immigration Department official wrote the policy exemption change for exotic dancers had "indeed gone right to Minister Pettigrew's office" for approval.
Before Mr. Volpe cancelled the program, Ms. Sgro had defended the stripper exemption despite her department's concerns.
Ms. Sgro, whose chief of staff visited strip clubs to meet owners who wanted to bring in foreign dancers, feared ending the program could hurt the strip club business.