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Newmarket stands by crackdown on erotic massage, despite some protests

Council of Women Against Sex Trafficking said they hope to use Newmarket's bylaw as a template to lobby for similar laws across York Region
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Newmarket is proceeding with new regulations that will limit alternative massage parlours despite an outcry from some Asian-Canadian advocates.

After listening for about two hours to several delegations from advocates and experts concerned about the impact the bylaw could have on Asian parlour workers, both sexual and non-sexual, council committee of the whole approved the amendments to the business bylaw today, June 16.

As a result, licensing will be required for "personal wellness establishments” — places offering massages from people other than registered massage therapists. The bylaw explicitly forbids sexual activity at these places, with council seeking to push such activity out of town.

Mayor John Taylor said he was torn, but council had to respond to residents concerned about illicit businesses. Any parlours selling sexual services are already illegal under federal law. 

“We have to choose between two directions, both of which are imperfect,” Taylor said. “We can’t just say we’re going to ignore the illegal activity when we have the ability to address it.” 

Manager of regulatory services Flynn Scott detailed the new regulations, which would require the establishments to submit floor plans and worker information. It would also necessitate workers have training from a registered post-secondary institution.

The regulations allow workers to submit alternatives, such as an association membership, for training such as osteopathy or Reiki, which do not have registered post-secondary courses. This is meant to capture practices from non-Western cultures. 

“We didn’t want to exclude anyone on this basis,” Scott said. “We are proposing it only be a substitution where no accredited institution offers that practice.” 

But several representatives from Asian-Canadian advocacy groups spoke against the bylaw. Council also heard first-hand accounts from parlour workers who spoke through interpreters in favour of their workplaces. Speakers brought up Anti-Asian racism and the gunman who killed eight people at massage parlours in Georgia in March.

Tsz Chan, a community organizer, said the bylaw is too restrictive. She said many have work experience that the bylaw might not account for, and there is concern this type of legislation could spread elsewhere.

“Your city will not give them a chance,” Chan said. “How to provide so many documents when they just want to make a living like everyone else?” 

Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly,  a support network for Asian and migrant sex workers, said the workers should be allowed to continue and said the bylaw is hateful.

“You need to remember massage parlour workers and sex workers are being killed because of the hate against them," Lam said. 

Council members spoke out against accusations of racism. Taylor said it was inappropriate and untrue to say council was targeting Asian workers. He said he was unaware the industry was dominated by them, and the regulations were aimed at a specific activity,

"There's zero doubt in my mind that this council is not thinking about race, at all, in any moment of this discussion, dialogue or debate," Taylor said. 

Taylor added the municipality would enforce the bylaw through fines, not through raids or handcuffs. He said fines would be against business and property owners, not workers. He said there is validity in arguments about harm reduction in the sex work sector, but they are better raised against federal laws. 

Elena Shih, a professor at Brown University studying human trafficking, said the licensing bylaws have unduly harmed workers in American settings. She said they will not stop human trafficking.

“The marginalization of Asian, low-wage care workers by subjecting them to these excessive forms of scrutiny and bureaucracy will only make them further vulnerable,” Shih told council. “While incredibly difficult to hear, I understand, it is not hyperbole to suggest massage licence laws have racist outcomes.”

Some deputations spoke in favour of the new regulations. Marnie Hill of the Council of Women Against Sex Trafficking in York Region said they hope to use Newmarket's bylaw as a template to lobby for similar laws elsewhere in the region.

“By working together, we can make the trafficking, exploitation and abuse of women and girls in body rub parlours a historic footnote,” Hill said.

Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh said many deputations were people from outside the Newmarket area, who are not sharing the local experience.

“This was a result of many years here in Newmarket where we’ve had complaints,” Vegh said. “We’re Newmarket municipal council. We don’t have the ability or the tools to solve the problems of the world."

Councillor Kelly Broome questioned what support staff could offer to help those who may struggle to get accreditation for financial reasons. Scott replied they would help however possible and workers might only need to get one or two courses.

Taylor asked about the possibility of opening up the exemption section to allow for less formal training, for workers not engaging in sexual activity. He said he was concerned about economic barriers. 

But Scott said that could open loopholes for more erotic massage parlours to get through.

“If we do become lenient on the application process, more will come through that door, and we will be presented with some challenges,” he said.

Council did amend the draft bylaw to increase fines for sexual activity or permitting an attendant to be nude. Those fines were slated to start at $450 but will now go to $3,000. Council also asked for more language prohibiting the establishments from being used as dwellings. 

The new regulations will not come into an effect until a new zoning bylaw is also in place, likely early in 2022, Scott said.

“We’re addressing a community concern. We’re doing it in a way that falls within our jurisdiction,” Taylor said. “It is something we will obviously be monitoring and adjusting as we go forward.”