2 cities, 2 very different approaches to massage parlours

The sex trade is booming in both Regina and Saskatoon, but the two cities have taken surprisingly different approaches to addressing the phenomenon.

Saskatoon is permissive, Regina dismissive

CBC's iTeam examines how Saskatoon and Regina have taken surprisingly different approaches to addressing adult services in their cities. (CBC)

The sex trade is booming in both Regina and Saskatoon, but the two cities have taken surprisingly different approaches to addressing the phenomenon.

Saskatoon Police have essentially partnered with brothels and are vetting their employees for them. In Regina, city officials insist that — technically speaking — there are no massage parlours in their environs, even though the police vice squad describes it as an exploding industry.

It's trying to establish it as a little bit more of a legitimate business.- Saskatoon Police Det. Const. Chris Harris

Despite the very different views and approaches to dealing with the sex trade, officials in both cities defend their policies, even though it is obvious that not everyone is on the same page, and not every policy is having its desired effect.

Saskatoon's approach

On Jan. 1, 2013, the relationship between massage parlours and the Saskatoon Police Service changed from adversarial to collegial.

That's when the new Adult Services Licensing Bylaw came into effect, which requires massage parlours to relocate to industrial areas of the city. It also requires escorts and massage parlour workers to buy a $250 dollar licence from Saskatoon police.

"They need to get approval, for lack of a better word, from us in terms of a license," explained Detective Const. Chris Harris.

He added that the officer issuing the licence takes steps to ensure no coercion is involved.

Detective Constable Chris Harris, from the Saskatoon Police Service, says licensing massage parlours takes prostitution out of the shadows and into the modern age. (CBC)

"[That they're] doing it because they want to, that they're not being exploited, [and] that they're of age to do it," he said.

From his perspective, the licensing requirement is a way to take prostitution out of the shadows and into the modern age.

"It's trying to establish it as a little bit more of a legitimate business," he said. "That is no different than if somebody wants to open a shoe store or a Tim Hortons. You've got to get a business licence. It's the same thing."

With a license, a sex trade worker can operate as an escort or work at a licensed massage parlours in Saskatoon.

Brothel owner loves new bylaw

Trish Fisher hires many licensed women at her business, The Lion's Den, which she candidly describes as a "brothel" — a place where the women who work for her exchange sex for money.

"The reason I'm doing it right now is because I can do it with the support of the city and the vice unit and I'm in a position to help people," Fisher explained.

She said licensing is the best thing that's happened to her industry, calling it a partnership with police and the city.

Lion’s Den owner Trish Fisher believes licensing is the best thing that's happened to her industry. She calls it a partnership with police and the city. (CBC)

Fisher especially likes how she is relieved of some background checks on workers.

"One of the things that the licensing has done is taken completely out of my hands now, [the need] to make sure that they are who they say they are, that they are of age, that they are Canadian citizens," she said. "By doing the licensing, the city and police, the vice unit, have taken that on."

Police do brothel's HR work

Saskatoon Police freely admit they are doing some of The Lion's Den's human resources work.

"What's the alternative?" Detective Harris asks.

"We just want to open the lines of communication," he added. "I could care less that that's how you choose to make your money. I'm not here to judge anybody."

Harris also notes the the current system is, in his view, a vast improvement from the way police used to do monitor the business. In the past, police looking to check on suspected sex trade activities could only knock on a hotel door knowing the escort was under no obligation to open it.

With the licensing bylaw, officers now have a legal reason to approach women working in the sex trade.

Saskatoon and 'brothels'

Curiously, a Saskatoon city hall official told CBC's iTeam that the municipality licenses adult service agencies (such as  massage parlours) but it doesn't license brothels. Canadian law prohibits running a brothel or common bawdy house.

"On paper, in our file, they're not operating a brothel until somebody goes out and finds out they are," Alan Wallace, Saskatoon's director of planning and development, said. "That's usually a police matter."

Alan Wallace is the director of planning and development for the City of Saskatoon. (CBC)

When CBC's iTeam pointed out that police have acknowledged at least some massage parlours in the city, like The Lions Den, are brothels Wallace explained the city simply handles the paperwork.

"We only license what they say they're going to do and we only evaluate it against what's legal and what's not," he said. "So, whatever happens out there, there's a real world out there, and if things are not happening according to the law, well, we're not licensing that. We're licensing the legal part of it."

Regina's approach

Regina also has a bylaw dealing with adult services although Regina's version appears to be unenforced when it comes to massage parlours.

The city's Adult Entertainment Establishment Bylaw was adopted in the early 1990s, and in part, targets massage parlours which it defines as establishments where, for a price, a massage would be "administered to the human body for sexual pleasure."

The bylaw requires that any massage parlour in the city be located in an industrial area and be a minimum of 182.88 metres from any school, home, church, private club, rink, bowling alley or funeral home.

If a massage parlour meet these criteria, the application would then go before city council for its consideration.

According to research by CBC's iTeam, there are at least three places operating as massage parlours outside of Regina's industrial zone.

Identified massage parlours in Regina, relative to the city's industrial zone. Regina's Adult Entertainment Bylaw says such establishments should be in the industrial zoned areas. (Map by Andre Mougeot/CBC)
Identified massage parlours in Saskatoon, relative to the city's industrial zone. Saskatoon's Adult Services Licensing Bylaw says such establishments should be in the industrial zoned areas. (Map by Andre Mougeot/CBC)

No massage parlours in Regina?

The manager of planning for the city of Regina, Fred Searle, explained that when it comes to massage parlours, the bylaw hasn't seen any action.

Regina police officer Tim Filazek says while there were only 2-4 massage parlours in operation 10 years ago, today there are 15-20. (CBC)

"Under the current bylaw provisions, we processed no applications for a massage parlour," Searle told CBC's iTeam.

In other words, currently there are no massage parlours in Regina, according to city hall, which seems to contradict what the Regina Police Service has told CBC.

"We're seeing more and more massage parlours open up," Detective Corporal Tim Filazek said. Filazek noted that a decade ago Regina had two or three such places, whereas today "you're seeing 15 to 20."

CBC's iTeam asked the manager of planning about that.

Fred Searle, manager of planning for Regina, says there are no massage parlours licensed under the current adult services bylaw. (CBC)

"If there are operations in the city that are operating and the city would to become aware of those through a complaint process, we certainly have bylaw enforcement processes to follow up on those and then it would be incumbent on the operator to demonstrate their compliance with the bylaw," Searle said, adding that he is unaware of any complaints.

Most Canadian cities not doing enough

Diane Redsky said Regina's approach to the issue of massage parlours is consistent with what she's seen right across Canada.

The project director for the Canadian Women's Foundation Human Trafficking Taskforce told CBC's iTeam "We saw across the country that the majority of massage parlours operate illegally."

She recently led a research delegation on a 10-city tour, including Regina and Saskatoon, investigating how governments and communities are dealing with the sex trade. 

Bawdy of Evidence is CBC Saskatchewan iTeam's multipart series on massage parlours, prostitution and sexual exploitation. Graphic: Andre Mougeot/CBC

"I think everybody just thought that somebody else was watching and something is being done about it and that's why it's such a surprise to everyday citizens that no, in fact, there is nobody. There may be a bylaw in place but the enforcement is another matter."

Redsky said this lack of rigour could have real consequences for women and girls who are being exploited. 

"Our concern is that there's little enforcement, regulation, supervision and inspection of these massage parlours by anybody whether it's the municipality or what form of partnership they have with policing to do that."

She's pleased to see the proactive work that the city of Saskatoon is doing though she noted "it's too early to tell whether it's going to have the impact that's needed in the protection and prevention of trafficked women and girls."

According to Redsky, the Canadian Women's Foundation has commissioned research on how municipalities are dealing with massage parlours across the country.  

"It is something that is very important for us to be able understand not only how these are allowed to operate but what is the best way to ensure that vulnerable women and girls are protected." 

Replay the Saskatoon Morning live chat that looked into whether licensing massage parlours is the right way to go.

With files from CBC's David Fraser


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