News: Canada's Government Gets Skimpy With Work Visas for Exotic Dancers

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Subject: News: Canada's Government Gets Skimpy With Work Visas for Exotic Dancers
From: Melanie Orhant (
Date: Wed Apr 07 1999 - 10:25:06 EDT

Canada's Government Gets Skimpy With Work Visas for Exotic Dancers
The Wall Street Journal, April 5, 1999

CLINTON, Ontario -- As immigration fights go, the one involving Loredana
Silion has become particularly boisterous -- indeed, the gloves are coming

Of course, if she wins, so will the clothes.

Ms. Silion says she doesn't want much -- a temporary visa to work in Canada
and the right to practice her art, which she deems a public service, in a
nation with a sudden shortage of, well, talent. Her art happens to be
"exotic dancing."

The Canadian government, peeling her art of its euphemisms, calls the
22-year-old Ms. Silion a stripper and won't issue a work permit. Forced to
cool her heels in her hometown of Brasov, Romania, where she dances for the
equivalent of about $5 a night, she has sued in Canada's Federal Court to
force its hand.

Some of her supporters are livid. "There's no reason under any law" to deny
Ms. Silion a visa, says Sorin Cohn, a Toronto businessman, whose business
happens to be a strip club. "I'm not going to play dead over this."

Hitting Bottom at Tops

To understand why Ms. Silion's case has aroused such passion in people like
Mr. Cohn, venture out to Tops, an exotic-dancing bar plunked in the middle
of cornfields outside this small town of 3,200. A few hours after opening
one recent afternoon, not a single customer has come in. Red lights flash
around an empty stage. Two bored dancers slug quarters into a video game
and turn periodically to watch wrestling on television. "I wouldn't be
surprised if these places started closing down," says the bar manager,
Peter Zembashi. A year ago, the bar was busy with 20 or 30 customers on a
typical afternoon, he says, and crammed full at night. These days, even the
night crowds have dwindled to a few patrons.

These are troubled times for many strip joints across Canada -- those in
Ontario, its most populous province, in particular. The reason? A stripper
shortage. Bored customers, tired of seeing the same old faces week after
week, are staying away in droves.

"Look what I sold yesterday," complains Tops owner Nick Paelekis, pointing
to a stack of seven cases of empty beer bottles. In better days he sold 15
cases a day. "Every day I hear the same complaints. 'When are you going to
get some more girls?' " he says, flipping through his dancer schedule for
the next few months. Names such as Jezebel, Christina and Lucy appear over
and over.

"Bars are suffering" across the nation, agrees Toronto exotic-dancer agent
Alex Radulescu.

This suffering, in the eyes of agents and club owners, stems from a
campaign, begun quietly by the Canadian government more than a year ago, to
bar foreigners from the exotic-dance trade -- a trade, the dancers point
out, to which they were once eagerly welcomed. No one thinks the government
is guilty of protectionist sentiments toward home-grown talent; its concern
seems mainly to be a suspicion -- exaggerated, says the exotic-dance crowd
-- that foreign strippers are sometimes abused by their employers, often
overstay their visas and may become involved in drugs and prostitution. The
government points to raids last year in Ontario of several strip clubs at
which a number of dancers and their male patrons were arrested on
prostitution charges.

Dancing Around the Issue?

The government never made a big deal of its anti-foreign-stripper policy;
it's just that agents who import strippers for the estimated 200 clubs that
dot Ontario woke up one day to realize that almost no new permits had been
issued after Jan. 1, 1998. By contrast, the government, in previous years,
had approved visas for about 400 women annually; most came from Eastern
Europe or other economically depressed countries, lured by the fact that
dancing in a Canadian strip club could net them more in a day than jobs
back home (assuming they could find one) paid in a month. For Diana
Dragomir, a Romanian who has been dancing in Canada for two years, much of
the $2,000 she makes in a good week goes back to Romania to support her
extended family still living there, she says.

But the Canadian government says many foreign women don't always have a
clear idea that, though the money is good, exotic dancing isn't the world's
most wholesome profession, and that club owners and customers will
sometimes try to take advantage of them.

These are "young girls who don't speak the language and don't know what
they're getting into," says Lucie Bisson, an official with the Canadian
government's human-resources department.

For Romanian dancer Liliana Andrai, among the hundreds who have recently
been denied a six-month work visa, this is a patronizing attitude. "I don't
accept prostitution, and I will not accept drugs," Ms. Andrai fumes during
a recent phone interview from her home in Bucharest. Ms. Andrai says the
Canadian Embassy there has gone so far as to start asking applicants to
prove they are actually professional dancers by performing (clothed).

But she and others believe this is merely a government ruse to turn down
all applicants as unqualified. She says she danced for embassy officials
and thinks "they enjoyed it." But she later got notice, with no
explanation, that her visa request had been rejected. (A Canadian
government spokesman wouldn't comment on the particulars of Ms. Andrai's
case but finds it "ridiculous" that anyone would be asked to dance.)

Barely a Response

This would seem like an opportunity for Canadian dancers. But club owners
say the talent pool of young local women that the clubs used to draw on has
shrunk enormously in recent years. "A lot of Canadian girls want careers,
good jobs. They can't be bothered to strip," says Rick Hutt, a 23-year-old
strip-club manager working at Charlie T's in Toronto.

Indeed, desperate for new dancers last year, Mr. Cohn says he placed
newspaper ads seeking strippers in Halifax, Nova Scotia and St. John's,
Newfoundland. "I had three males call me -- not even one girl," he gripes.

Ron Storozuk, owner of J.R.'s Tavern in Chatham, Ontario, says he, too,
recently took out newspaper ads seeking exotic dancers. He got about eight
calls, but none showed up for an interview, he says.

Enter Ms. Silion, who actually has never set foot in Canada. But with the
help of the nascent Adult Entertainment Association of Canada, a group of
club owners and agents striving to "police this industry and uphold the
highest standards possible," she filed suit last October when her visa
application was turned down.

Among the supporting documents filed with the Federal Court in the case: a
letter from the Extassy nightclub in Brasov, where she now dances,
endorsing Ms. Silion as "serious, disciplined and devotedly attached to her
work." The government, however, deemed this insufficient reason to give Ms.
Silion a permit to dance at the Sunset Strip in Toronto, which had offered
her a job. Her case is set for trial this August.

Meanwhile, business at the Sunset Strip is lousy. On a recent night, only
three dancers are on duty and about eight men dot the mostly empty seats.
Owner Dario DeRose says he needs 10 dancers a night to bring in the crowds,
but newspaper ads and calls to agents have been fruitless. Moreover,
there's another reason to fret: Some of his dwindling number of Canadian
dancers are fleeing for greener pastures of their own.

"Ninety percent of the good-looking Canadian dancers are in the U.S.," says
club owner Mr. Cohn. For starters, the tips are better; beyond that, he
says, they can dance topless instead of nude.

Melanie Orhant

Human Trafficking Program
Global Survival Network

P.O. Box 73214
Washington, DC 20009
T: 387-0028
F: 387-2590

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