As Grand Prix approaches, Montreal hotels vigilant about sexual exploitation

With Grand Prix weekend just around the corner, Montreal hotel staff are trying to play an active role in preventing sexual exploitation.

RCMP, Montreal police campaign at border, in town to make sure everyone knows buying sex publicly is illegal

People condemning the sexual exploitation of women by Grand Prix fans who flock to Montreal each June demonstrated at this protest in 2015. (CBC)

About 20 years ago, Nicolas Gibeau was working at a front desk in a hotel when a young girl came down and asked for a condom.

"She said, 'It's my first time, and I forgot to bring condoms.' She seemed extremely stressed, and I had no clue how to react, what to do," he said.

He asked himself questions — was she an adult, or underage? Was she working as a prostitute, or was she being sexually exploited?
Nicolas Gibeau, who teaches at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, said he'd like to equip his students with the knowledge of what to do if they fear someone is being exploited by a hotel guest. (CBC)

Gibeau wound up giving her the condom. The experience still gnaws at him today, but he admitted that if it happened again, he still wouldn't know how to react. 

"I'm still not, 20 years later, knowledgeable enough, I still don't have the correct information or tools to act properly. That's what bothers me."

Gibeau now teaches at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, Montreal's hotel and restaurant training ground, and he wants to equip his students with that knowledge.

Red flags

With Grand Prix weekend just around the corner, Montreal hotel staff are trying to play an active role in preventing sexual exploitation.

There are a few signs that should raise red flags for staff, including:

  • A young girl accompanied by a much older man.
  • Clients who insist on paying cash.
  • Clients who repeatedly ask for their linens to be cleaned.
However, Gibeau acknowledged that there are many different circumstances that could explain those red flags, which complicates things.
Montreal police and the RCMP have collaborated in recent years to raise awareness about sexual exploitation at the annual Grand Prix, and the SPVM puts on extra patrols. Their message: Keep the action on the track. (CBC)

"We can't do it alone. We need help from police. We need help from ... [politicians], but we do need help from outside associations to help us work toward a solution."

Wrong approach, say advocates

Not everyone believes the hotel initiative is a good idea.

"Sex work is not necessarily exploitation, it's not inherently violent" said Sandra Wesley. "This is a continuation of this conflation of trafficking sexual exploitation and sex work, these initiatives really target all sex workers."

Wesley is the executive director of Chez Stella, an organization that advocates for the quality of life of sex workers and the decriminalization of sex work.

"Trying to find ways to be trained to survey and spot us and denounce us to the police, puts us in grave danger."

Instead, she said the best way hotels could help sex workers would be to welcome them more openly, instead of forcing them to hide when entering and exiting the building.

Police awareness campaign

Last year, 12 arrests were made for crimes related to sexual exploitation during the Grand Prix, including three people arrested after they purchased services from a minor, according to RCMP Const. Erique Gasse.

While he can't confirm whether sexual trafficking is on the increase, Gasse said it is definitely more prevalent during Grand Prix weekend.

For two years, the RCMP and Montreal police have collaborated on a campaign to raise awareness and to try to prevent sexual exploitation.

Officers patrol the airport, the border and the city to warn people that the public purchase of sexual services is a crime, Gasse explained.

Protecting those who need it

Marie-Claude McDuff, director of student affairs at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, said hotel workers are often trying to balance being respectful toward their guests and trusting their gut if they feel something is off.
Marie McDuff, the director of student affairs at the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec, said hotel workers have a duty to step in if they believe someone is being exploited, but they have to tread carefully. (CBC)

Because there are risks involved if they guess and get it wrong, staff do have to be careful, she said.

But she has no problem with dealing with complaints should a member of her staff mistakenly assume someone is being victimized.

"Yeah, it could go all the way to a lawsuit. What am I supposed to do? At least I tried to protect the person I thought needed protection," she said.

There are already rules in place in the U.S. In Connecticut, anyone working in a hotel is obliged to take a course to help them recognize if someone is being exploited. A similar bill is up for adoption in the state of New York.

The Grand Prix and its side parties, like this one on Crescent Street in 2013, have a reputation for attracting a crowd that sees buying sex as just part of the fun. (CBC)

With files from Jay Turnbull