Sex trafficking is rampant in Toronto's city-licensed spas, massage parlours, activists say

“I remember thinking, these people know about what’s going on, because they’re licensing this,” says Casandra Diamond, who survived being sex trafficked for a decade within licensed Toronto massage parlours.

City's licensing and standards department conducting review of issues, regulations

'I remember thinking, 'These people know about what’s going on, because they’re licensing this,'" says Casandra Diamond, who survived sex trafficking for a decade within licensed Toronto massage parlours. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

When Casandra Diamond was lured into the world of licensed Toronto massage parlours as a teenager, she thought it would give her control and financial freedom.

Instead, she lived in fear for the next 10 years.

Forced to provide sexual services to a dozen men each night, Diamond routinely endured requests that were degrading or violent. Then she would go home to her "boyfriend" — the man who was trafficking her, cutting her off from family and friends and keeping her money.

When city bylaw officers inspected the parlour she worked at, Diamond knew they weren't there to help, but to see if anyone was breaking the rules. Even speaking to them for too long could lead to punishment from her trafficker, she recalled. 

"There are no mechanisms in place to ensure the safety of trafficked women," Diamond said.

After escaping that life in 2004, Diamond became an advocate for other sex trafficking survivors through her Newmarket-based charity, BridgeNorth.

She's now among those calling for more support for victims in Toronto, and questioning why the city is in the business of licensing spas and massage parlours where sex trafficking is proliferating right under bylaw officers' noses.

"It felt like everybody knew what was going on, and it was okay," Diamond said. "It was socially sanctioned — it made you think it was safer — but it wasn't. Not at all."

According to a new report from the city's Municipal Licensing and Standards division, there are 25 licenses for body-rub parlours right now in Toronto — a cap that's existed since 1975 — and 410 licensed holistic centres.

City reviewing licensing of spas, body rub parlours

Sex trafficking is one piece of the conversation surrounding a review of licensing for body rub parlours and holistic spas at city council's licensing and standards committee on Tuesday.

According to a new report from the city's Municipal Licensing and Standards division, there are 25 licenses for body-rub parlours right now in Toronto — a cap that's existed since 1975 — and 410 licensed holistic centres.

Last year, a report from Toronto's auditor general found that more than a quarter of those holistic centres appear to advertise erotic massages and other services that may violate city bylaws.

Those illicit activities are one thing, but sex trafficking is the bigger issue, according to Barbara Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, one of the groups presenting to the committee.

Barbara Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, says more needs to be done to protect victims of sex trafficking in city-licensed establishments in Toronto. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

"We're tired of the anemic response this issue is getting," she said, noting how for years, there has been talk of reviewing city bylaws.

"There needs to be much more work done to improve the existing lax regulatory system for victims and survivors who are trafficked."

Since the city's human trafficking unit was created in 2014, Toronto Police have encountered more than 200 victims.

While the focus is often on those found in roadside motels and private apartments, police say many are also trafficked within city-licensed establishments.

Later this year, Toronto Police will be one piece of a working group led by Municipal Licensing and Standards, which will support consultation with various stakeholder groups, including the operators of body rub parlours, holistic spas, and organizations that work with sex workers.

According to the report, a piece of this work will also be identifying long-term support services for sex trafficking survivors and developing prevention strategies.

'Bigger question' than city can answer

Councillor Jim Karygiannis, vice-chair of the municipal licensing and standards committee, welcomes more discussion about how to prevent sex trafficking in Toronto, but says the role the city can play is "very limited."

Instead, he believes there should be more provincial or federal oversight of the regulatory bodies for spas and massage parlours. "It's definitely a much bigger question than the city can answer," he said.

Still, it's one Municipal Licensing and Standards does hope to tackle, with another report proposing bylaw changes and enforcement strategies expected in 2019 following the research and consultation this year.

The review will allow city staff a "full opportunity" to make recommendations on issues including trafficking, said Mayor John Tory on Tuesday. 

Coun. Jim Karygiannis, vice chair of council's licensing and standards committee, welcomes more conversation on protecting sex trafficking victims, but questions how much can be done at a municipal level. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Whatever the city decides, Diamond worries that licensing illicit businesses will allow sex trafficking to continue in a way that appears "sanctioned" by the city itself.

"I remember thinking, 'These people know about what's going on, because they're licensing this,'" she said.

"I perceived that [Municipal Licensing and Standards] understood that some guy was hitting me, spitting on me, punching and kicking and slapping. It's like they knew that these requests were being made and were saying, 'It's okay.'"

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

With files from CBC News