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York Region report, police refute targeting massage parlours for sex trafficking

Newmarket passed new bylaw regulating parlours last summer to stop alleged sexual activity
sex trafficking shutterstock_218899729 2016
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York Region staff said in a new report that efforts to eradicate body rub parlours are not an effective means to address sex trafficking.

Regional council discussed the report and opted to forward it to local municipalities and police March 3, with no other resolutions toward addressing the issue. 

The report, made in consultation with York Regional Police, pushed back on the demands for more action from some local anti-human trafficking groups that supported Newmarket’s own body rub parlour regulations. Police Chief Jim MacSween told council he believes in current approaches.

“We all want to make sure that human trafficking is eradicated in the region, and that includes trafficking of young people,” MacSween said. “We believe our approach is doing a great job of that.”

The report came at the behest of council after representatives from two regional anti-sex trafficking groups presented to them in October. They urged municipalities to adopt similar measures to Newmarket that more strictly regulate alternative massage parlours, in a bid to stop alleged illicit sexual activity in them. 

But the report said human trafficking is a complicated, multi-jurisdictional matter. It notes police’s current approach is victim protection, rather than focusing solely on “eradication,” which the report said “drives sex work underground and often further marginalizes sex workers.”

Jacqueline Benn-John, executive director of Newmarket-based Women's Centre of York Region, has voiced that concern to NewmarketToday. 

"We are concerned on our end because so much of this will just end up going further underground. It isn't really a solution," said Benn-John.

“Targeting body rub parlours and other adult entertainment establishments would be concentrating enforcement efforts in an area of lesser concern in relation to sex trafficking,” the report said, adding police found most human trafficking in the region happens within hotels, condos and short-term rentals. 

The report added that no children have been recovered from regional body rub parlours since 2008. 

Robert Vallee of Parents Against Child Trafficking - Markham and Richmond Hill was critical of police and their handling of the issue.

“Our group’s goal is to make York Region the first region in Ontario that is free from sex trafficking, by pimps and traffickers, but also free from the crime of prostituting women,” he said. “At this time, both the police force and the board are not on the same page (as us) because of misinformation."

Newmarket’s body rub parlour regulations, which began licensing last month, had alleged illicit sexual activity occurring at them frequently as justification for the crackdown.

When asked by Markham Regional Councillor Don Hamilton, police general counsel Jason Fraser declined to comment directly on Newmarket’s policy in open session, citing solicitor-client privilege. 

The report said the police approach is partnering with community organizations to focus on “rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration” of victims. Regional solicitor Dan Kuzmyk said that aligns with federal Bill C-36 the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which de-emphasized sex trade criminalization. He said it is being reviewed by the federal government this week.

“There is no widespread support for further criminalization,” he said. “All of the emphasis is put on education, addressing the objectification of women, victim and survivor support.

He added that police do still investigate illegal activity at establishments.

Fraser said police cannot criminally investigate a business without cause. 

“We can’t, as the police, just walk into your business, or anybody’s business, at random,” he said, “without us running afoul of some fairly deep-seated Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) values.”

Newmarket’s rules aim to halt licences for alternative massage businesses that fail to meet new requirements, such as proof of qualification for employees, and add fines for issues such as sexual activity. 

“We support the work that bylaw enforcement does,” Fraser said, “because it complements the work we do as the criminal investigators.”