Newmarket council passed new regulations for body rub parlours June 21, despite a final push from Asian advocacy groups who say it is discriminatory.
The “personal wellness establishment” regulations — which would require licensing for alternative massage businesses and prohibit sexual activity — have garnered national attention in the last week.
Council went ahead with the controversial regulations despite continued outcry from Asian advocacy groups. Mayor John Taylor said the municipality is creating an enforceable bylaw to address public concerns — and not be seen as abiding by illegal activity under federal laws barring businesses from offering sex.
“We recognize there is no perfect policy answer to this issue,” Taylor said. “But we feel the best approach is to support the federal law, and enforce a desired community standard to not allow storefront sex businesses to operate in Newmarket.”
The regulations would require detailed information from those wishing to operate an alternative massage site. A key point of conflict is the requirement that workers have education from an accredited post-secondary institution, though there is an exception if no accreditation exists for a worker’s particular massage practice.
That exception is meant to capture non-Western practices. But advocates claim the application process is too arduous, and Asian massage workers, including those who do not do sex work, could lose their livelihoods.
Dozens of letters came in from advocacy groups opposing the rules and the disproportionate impact it could have on Asians.
Anna Lippman of Standing Up for Racial Justice Toronto said she appreciated council acknowledged the barriers associated with the bylaw. But she expressed concern that workers would fall through the cracks of the licensing process.
“Many Asian workers face language and financial barriers in accessing college training,” Lippman said. “Addressing these barriers in case-by-case exemptions is not feasible.”
Councillor Christine Bisanz said though council heard from academics and workers, one key perspective missing was from body rub parlour owners.
“I did not hear what standards for safety, for consumer protection, for worker protection, they are following and conforming with,” Bisanz said.
Councillor Trevor Morrison said he is confident staff will work with applicants during the licensing process.
“I know that fairness and quality will definitely prevail there,” Morrison said.
Councillor Bob Kwapis said council should consider reviewing the exemption in a year or two to ensure it is working.
Taylor commented on the tone of the discussion. He said the debate turned into a series of attacks and many deputations and emails “were rude and disrespectful.” He spoke out against accusations some made that council was racist and hateful.
“Attacking your perceived opponent is slowly replacing fact-based debate and respectful disagreement,” Taylor said. “These attacks are of such a personal nature that they have, in my eyes, introduced a new low point in our council chamber.”
He said council is committed to inclusivity. He cited actions such as welcoming the York Region Pride parade to the area and creating an Anti-Black Racism Task Force.
“Does that mean we have a perfect bylaw or we do not need to listen carefully to all the points of view? Of course not,” Taylor said. “We need to continue to work hard to listen respectfully and think critically.”
The new rules will not go into effect immediately. The resolution states they would come into place at the same time as an accompanying zoning bylaw amendment. Staff have indicated the amendment would be later this year.
“This is a proud, proud day for all of us,” Councillor Grace Simon said. “For us to be saying we will fight to protect human rights.”