Nova Scotia

Massage therapist wants to see tougher rules for practitioners in N.S.

A Nova Scotia massage therapist who belongs to the same professional association as a man accused of sexually assaulting seven women is questioning why his membership hasn't been revoked.

Lauren Hogeboom says no one accused of sexual assault should be working as part of a professional association

Lauren Hogeboom has been working as a massage therapist for about a decade. (Robert Short/CBC)

A Nova Scotia massage therapist who belongs to the same professional association as a man accused of sexually assaulting seven women says she's sickened the group has been unable to prevent him from practising.

Martin Huybers has pleaded not guilty to nine counts of sexual assault. As he awaits trial, he can continue to work provided that he abides by a court order to only see female clients with supervision.

But Lauren Hogeboom says allowing Huybers to treat patients and bill insurance companies while the case goes through the court system reflects badly on the profession. She is concerned about the message it sends to sexual assault survivors and the general public.

"It also takes away from the validity of what we do and what we strive to do, and takes away from therapists out there who genuinely want to help people. To have this shadow over things is genuinely frustrating," Hogeboom said. 

Huybers said in an earlier statement to CBC that he is still working and would "never do anything to harm or abuse any patient, or damage the profession or [his] own reputation."

(CBC)

In Nova Scotia, trained massage therapists may choose to join a professional  group but there are no provincial regulations restricting who can call themselves a massage therapist.

In the other Atlantic provinces, as well as Ontario and British Columbia, only people approved by a College of Massage Therapists may obtain a licence to work and those licences can be suspended, restricted or revoked separate from police investigations. 

There are four groups which represent massage therapists in the province. They are able to look into public complaints, but don't have the legal authority to restrict someone from working. The most they can do is prevent the person from billing insurance companies by revoking his or her membership.

The two largest groups, Massage Therapists Association of Nova Scotia and Massage Therapists and Wholistic Practioners' Association of the Maritimes, require members to have a minimum of 2,200 hundred hours of training from an approved school. 

Both Huybers and Hogeboom belong to Massage Therapists and Wholistic Practioners' Association of the Maritimes, which represents about nine per cent of massage therapists working in the Nova Scotia. 

The group's code of ethics states: practitioners "shall not take advantage of a Client's vulnerabilities for the Therapist's or Practitioner's sexual, emotional, social, political, or financial interest or benefit." 

Association says its hands are tied

Last October, after reading news articles about Huybers being charged, Hogeboom contacted the president of her  association. She questioned why Huybers remained a member in good standing and why she learned about the charges through the media and not her association. 

In an email to Hogeboom, president Alicia Stacey said the association's board wouldn't be able to conduct its own investigation while the criminal charges were outstanding "as it would interfere with the police investigation."

However, "any member who is found guilty of sexual assault by the courts would be removed from the association immediately," she wrote. 

Stacey has repeatedly declined CBC's requests for comment, saying she is unable to comment on individual members or their circumstances. 

Hogeboom said the group's bylaws allow for members or the board to vote on whether to terminate someone's membership, but to her knowledge this option was never discussed in the Huybers' case. 

The association also has a policy that states members are considered innocent until proven guilty and criminal matters are outside of its jurisdiction. 

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Leslie Wilber-Campbell is the massage therapist who owns Stride Spa and Wellness Centre where Huybers is alleged to have sexually assaulted seven women during treatments between 2014 and 2017. She informed Massage Therapists and Wholistic Practioners' Association of the Maritimes last July that she had heard separate concerns about his conduct from two women.

By that time, Huybers no longer leased space in her business. 

Wilber-Campbell filed a written complaint to Stacey two days before RCMP announced Huybers had been charged with three counts of sexual assault. 

Hogeboom wants to see Nova Scotia adopt legislation that would give a college the legal authority to investigate public complaints, separate from police investigations.

"We were told basically legally their [the association's] hands were tied. There needs to be some changes to that," she said. "If the association is waiting for the outcome of criminal investigations and not having any due recourse in that process, to allow him to continue to practice just doesn't make any sense."

Laura Hogeboom, who works in Eastern Passage, says massage therapists who belong to a professional association in Nova Scotia must get extensive training. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Massage Therapists Association of Nova Scotia said it's working on a legislative proposal for the Nova Scotia government to consider and hopes to work with the three other associations that represent massage therapists here.

Hogeboom said having a more transparent complaints process would give her more peace of mind. 

"It just allows the public to have more confidence in what we're doing, and that we take what we do very seriously and that we take situations like this very seriously," she said. 

She says she is in the process of applying for membership in another professional association.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC in Halifax. Over the past 13 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

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