Nfld. & Labrador

Fiery debate over massage parlours dominates St. John's public meeting

As the city prepares to welcome applications for massage parlours after a four-year ban, opinions continue to flare.

City prepares to welcome applications for massage parlours after 4-year ban

Members of various advocacy groups spoke out at Wednesday's public meeting. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

As St. John's city planners implored the public for help hashing out the details of a decision to lift a ban on massage parlours, a broader — and more fervid — debate on ethics reared its head.

Voices from two camps elbowed for real estate at Wednesday night's public meeting: those defending council's decision to allow new parlours, and those asking the city to pump the brakes until new rules are introduced to ward off potential violence against those inside.

The city wanted input on what to call the parlours — the term "body rub" parlour had been previously floated to distinguish the businesses from those run by licensed therapists — and where the parlours can open.

But despite their attempts to steer the conversation toward the few regulations the city says it has control over, opinions flared.

"I got the feeling in the room that everyone was talking about zoning and buildings and getting the warm fuzzies about what we are going to call it and what are not going to call it," said Mel Brace, a human rights advocate and survivor of sexual exploitation.

City planners asked the public for their say on labeling and zoning exceptions. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

"We are talking about women's lives here, not pretty buildings and where we are going to put them."

Brace said there's a near total dearth of industry-specific regulations on the businesses that are already open, and criticized the city for moving ahead without first ensuring safety measures for people providing services inside the parlours.

"I am asking for them to ask for control and push for it," she said. "My recommendation would be to put everything on hold for right now when it comes to the city. If they have so little control they need to just pause."

Members of advocacy groups spoke in favour or against council's decision to lift the ban. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

While Brace said there's a need for resources and funding to help people exit the sex trade before opening the door for new businesses, others in the room applauded the city for moving ahead, pressing the need for spaces to get people off the street even while the details are still being worked out.

Heather Jarvis, program director of the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, said she'd spoken with almost 50 sex workers who submitted feedback to the city. While some disagreed with the decision to lift the ban, other workers said they welcomed it.

"There is disagreement. There is a variety of different perspectives and opinions," Jarvis said.

"What we've found in the course of advocacy is that the vast majority want the moratorium lifted. They supported this.… it's supported by research."

Heather Jarvis, who works with the Safe Harbour Outreach Project, said most of the people she'd spoken to in the industry are pleased with council's decision. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Coun. Maggie Burton, who brought forward the motion that was approved unanimously in September, referenced similar feedback.

"People have been talking in the community about this moratorium that was put in place without any consultation with the sex working community," Burton said.

"It has pushed a lot of people underground into unsafe environments, and that is a concern that I have been responding to."

Burton said the next step will be reviewing input on names and zoning suggestions from people involved in the industry and working with the province on regulations specific to sex work.

A spokesperson for Service NL said the department is looking at amendments to legislation to help parlour employees in particular, including benefits such as post-traumatic stress disorder coverage.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jeremy Eaton