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City struggles to crack down on illegal erotic massage parlours

The city wants to crack down on unlicensed body rub parlours in Hamilton. But increasingly, its hands are tied.

The parlours are 'proliferating,' city officials say. But new prostitution laws have made enforcement harder

The city wants to crack down on unlicensed body rub parlours, but it says Bill C-36 has made it more difficult. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The red sign says "Massage." The windows are covered with images of towel-clad men and women, their eyes closed in relaxation as pairs of anonymous hands work their magic. 

In the front lobby, soothing music plays. The room smells of incense. A woman in heavy makeup emerges from the back, fully clothed in soft pink. She speaks in broken English.

"You want massage?" she asks. "I can give you a massage."

I don't know if they'd use these words, but their hands are tied.- Ward 5 Councillor Chad Collins

To hear neighbours tell it, some clients who use this advertised wellness spa in the Greenhill Ave. area get a racier reception, and are offered much more than a massage. They say it is an illegal body rub parlour, offering sexual services.

But while the neighbourhood wants it gone, city bylaw officials say they have no way of knowing for sure what goes on there and only limited enforcement tools.

The problem? New prostitution laws created in 2014 that focus on public buying or selling of sex mean police put little priority on the parlours, leaving bylaw staff on their own. In fact, bylaw staff say police no longer go undercover to help prove illegal activity.

Frank Westaway, a noise consultant and former city bylaw official, says he doesn't want body rub parlours in his neighbourhood. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

The city also cites the Greenhill area parlour as one it suspects — but can't prove — is doing unlicensed erotic massages. Such spas are proliferating, but since 2014, it's harder for city bylaw officers to find the parlours, it's harder to lay charges once they do.

"The landscape of how (police) enforce today has completely changed," said Coun. Chad Collins, whose Ward 5 includes the area where the parlour is located.

 "I don't know if they'd use these words, but their hands are tied."

Before 2014, city bylaw officials say, they would team up with Hamilton police officers who went into parlours undercover to catch culprits in illegal activity. Bylaw officers would also comb through the back pages of local publications to find places to investigate.

The new law, Bill C-36, has changed all that. Now it's illegal to advertise sex services, said Jim Gordon, a Hamilton bylaw enforcement officer. The legal focus has shifted to nabbing people who buy sex. And Hamilton police are primarily only interested in unlicensed parlours when there's a human trafficking issue.

The city isn't about to send bylaw enforcement officers into parlours undercover, Collins said. So its options are limited.

Police are 'victim focused'

Hamilton Police wouldn't answer exactly how Bill C-36 has changed their approach to erotic massage parlours. But in an email response, Supt. Dan Kinsella reiterated that investigators are interested in human trafficking cases, and that they want people to report it whether a parlour is licensed or not.

"The service is victim-focused and committed to the protection and prevention of trafficked women and girls," he said.

I just do regular body massage.'- Greenhill area wellness centre owner

"The vice & drugs human trafficking unit is specifically mandated to assist victims and to investigate incidents of human trafficking. To those who may find themselves caught up in situations, we want them to know that they can reach out at any time to Hamilton Police."

Collins has asked for a city report on the problem.

Hamilton isn't the only city grappling with how to crack down on unlicensed parlours. It's an issue in many Ontario cities. With Bill C-36, the industry has "gone underground," said Orest Katolyk, London's chief municipal law enforcement officer.

His office shut down a spa in December that was located next to a Christian reading room. As for how they're finding such places post-Bill C-36, "we don't disclose that publicly," he said.

Only 2 are licensed, and the city cranked up the fees

Then again, Gordon said, it can be hard to find them. The parlours are transient and identify themselves as holistic wellness centres. To find them, the city relies on neighbourhood complaints or second-hand information from parlour clients.

Lately, the city's enforcement focus has shifted to landlords. The city can go to court to take control of property where illegal activity is happening, Gordon said. City officials have sent letters to landlords informing them of that fact.

Gordon said he knows of "eight to 10" unlicensed body rub parlours in Hamilton right now. But the internet shows many more. 

Websites such as toronto-exotic-massage.com list the Greenhill clinic and dozens of others in Hamilton, Burlington and Grimsby. That includes Garden of Eden and King Sherman, Hamilton's only two licensed adult body rub parlours.

I still don't think it's a legitimate massage parlour.- Frank Westaway, resident and former bylaw officer

In 2013, the city cranked up the annual licensing fees for managers at Garden of Eden and King Sherman, from $307 to $1,235 per year.

That money is supposed to be used to help crack down on unlicensed places, said Barbara Beaver, manager of King Sherman Sauna. But she has no idea if it actually is.

Owner denies the unlicensed activity

"I can't comment on that. I've never seen one," she said of unlicensed places. "I only know what the city tells me."

CBC contacted a woman who said she was the owner of the Greenhill area parlour. She disputes that her business is doing anything wrong.

"I'm just regular massage," she told CBC Hamilton. "I just do regular body massage."

Neighbours describe a parlour that's open until the wee hours, with clients who go to the back door for privacy and hit a buzzer for admittance.

The woman disputes that, saying she's open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and "I use the back door. Customers don't use the back door."

'We've seen people take boxes of condoms in'

Frank Westaway, who worked in bylaw enforcement in Hamilton until 2000, owns a noise consulting firm in the neighbourhood. He's also a long-time resident.

"I still don't think that it's a legitimate massage parlour," he said.

"We've seen people take boxes of condoms in. We've seen people walk in nicely dressed and come out with their clothes undone."

Greenhill is largely a residential neighbourhood with apartment buildings and single-family homes — with "a lot of kids," he said.

"It's not needed in this area."

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