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This is where "strippergate," the controversy that threatens to derail the career of Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, all began: on a stage like this one, at the Diamonds Cabaret in Mississauga, Ont.

The lights are dim.

The sound system blares Ludacris rapping about "all these women on the prowl," while a porn movie plays on the television.

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A customer lies on stage beneath a brass pole, as two blond Slavic women -- they go by the stage names of Agnes and Isabella -- wearing nothing but leather boots stand over him and simulate lesbian sex.

They spank his backside with a belt, take the bills out of his mouth, and move on to the next customer.

Strip club owners say they can't find Canadian women to do the kind of work done by Agnes and Isabella, exotic dancers and performers from Romania.

Instead, the club owners turn to Ottawa's temporary work-visa program to bring in strippers from impoverished countries to fill the labour demand, just as farm owners bring in fruit pickers from Mexico and restaurant owners import chefs from Pakistan.

Critics of the exotic-dancer program -- and of Immigration Minister Judy Sgro, who is accused of wrongly helping a Romanian stripper named Alina Balaican prolong her stay here -- say these foreign dancers are being exploited by agents demanding kickbacks.

But there is another side to their Canadian journey. According to interviews with several people in the industry, while some strippers are mistreated by corrupt agents, others use the program as a back door into the country, and then marry Canadian men in a bid for citizenship.

"Many dancers are marrying Canadians," said a 27-year-old Romanian stripper who works at Diamonds and asked that her name not be used.

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She arrived in Toronto two years ago and is now married to a Canadian who is sponsoring her as a permanent resident. "I can't speak for all the girls; my marriage is legitimate. But it's possible some are not," she said.

In yet another bizarre twist, the exotic-dancer program may soon become the focus of a legal battle as well. Yesterday, immigration lawyers threatened a class action lawsuit if Ottawa makes good on its promise to scale back the program. It fills a legitimate economic need, they say, and curtailing it or shutting it down due to political pressure is a discriminatory move that violates international labour-mobility rights.

"There has always been a labour market need [for strippers]and that hasn't changed. The political kerfuffle over Ms. Sgro is not a sufficient reason to shut it down," said Mendel Green, a Toronto lawyer who used to act for the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada.

Last year, of the 82,151 foreign workers granted temporary work visas, just 661 were strippers. More than 80 per cent of those -- 552 -- were from Romania. (In contrast, in 2001, only 154 visas were issued.)

Tim Lambrinos, executive director of the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada, says the public has a difficult time grasping that the visas for dancers are the same as those for migrant fruit pickers and nannies. The government responds to employers who come forward with requests to bring in certain kinds of workers they cannot hire in the local market.

"Nobody is complaining that the blisters on the hands of male construction workers is exploitative," he said. "The political outrage focusing on the exotic-dancer program is further proof that society is still prejudiced against strippers."

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Sorin Cohn runs Diamonds Cabaret. He said the best explanation for the preponderance of Romanian dancers is that they qualify for the program and are keen to leave their country, which has a gross domestic product per capita of $1,700.

He said there are 3,000 Romanian dancers working in Japan. "There are lots of Romanians everywhere. It's probably because of the economic status in their own country. Hungarians and Czechs live better, and they don't need to come here," he said. Richard Kurland, an immigration lawyer in Vancouver, says Romanians also qualify for the program because they speak English, are well educated and have good economic prospects and a good rate of returning home.

Alina Balaican, the 25-year-old Romanian stripper granted a temporary-resident permit by Ms. Sgro, released a letter this week defending the minister's integrity. In the letter, she says her decision to volunteer on Ms. Sgro's election campaign had nothing to do with her request for immigration help. She turned to the minister, she says, after her "incompetent" immigration consultant failed to file her temporary work-visa renewal properly.

"I am very happily married to my husband, Howard Mulholland, a Canadian citizen. . . . It is my understanding that if no one stepped in to help rectify my situation, then I would have been sent back to Romania and separated from my husband, who owns a business here, for a period of two years," she wrote.

Mr. Cohn, at Diamonds, said many of the foreign dancers do marry in Canada, but denies they are paying men $10,000 for the privilege, as some allege.

"You have to remember, they [immigration officials]have been letting in girls since 1993, so over the years they accumulate, you know? A lot of them get married in the country; they find somebody; it happens to everybody."

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A security guard who has worked at numerous Toronto-area clubs said that, while foreign strippers are exploited by their handlers, dancers also attempt to exploit the system. "Their No. 1 goal is to get here and get married for their papers," he said.

However, Mr. Kurland disputes the notion the dancers are involved in marriages of convenience any more than the other 20,000 foreigners who marry Canadians every year and become eligible to be permanent residents.

The political controversy dogging Ms. Sgro and her efforts to assist Ms. Balaican is not the first time the exotic-dancers program has caused public outrage. Mr. Kurland has pages and pages of internal memos from Canadian immigration officers and diplomats overseas, who have grappled with questions of everything from prostitution to fraud as they process the applications.

Canadian officials have documented several cases in which women said they were duped into coming to Canada, or disappeared once in the country, or claimed refugee status.

"Police officials are of the opinion that a large majority of the women are lured here by false promises, subjected and forced into prostitution. . . . It seems some women know they are coming to dance nude, but none realize they may be forced into sexual acts with patrons," one intelligence officer wrote in a 1999 e-mail.

"The women expect to make a lot of money quickly, and perhaps an even stronger draw, it seems, for the Eastern European women is the prospect of remaining permanently in Canada," the officer added, noting they had to pay their agents kickbacks of $200-plus every week.

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Strippers frequently complained that they were also forced to pay kickbacks to drivers and to people who put them up in Canada.

In 2000, more than a dozen strip clubs were raided and 670 owners, agents and dancers charged under a joint law enforcement operation called Project Almonzo. Though in many cases charges were dropped, this enforcement initiative sent a strong message to the industry that prostitution would not be tolerated and foreign dancers could not be exploited. One official noted that visas issued to Eastern Europeans dropped by at least 50 per cent because of concern about fraud.

Alison, who asked that her real name not be used, is a 29-year-old woman who came here from Hungary in 1998 to work as a "burlesque entertainer" in Toronto and ended up as a witness in a criminal trial against her former agent. She was expected to engage in so-called table dancing and sit with clients in private VIP rooms at the back of the club, she said.

Worse, she said, she was sexually assaulted by her agent. Police laid charges against the man, part of what police say is a ring of organized criminals in Canada and Hungary who were trafficking women here. Last year, the criminal case was dropped due to a lack of evidence. "Knowing this is still going on gives me the creeps," she said. She has left the business and wants to become a social worker.

"I do think many dancers end up marrying Canadians so they can stay. For the most part, the guy gets his heart broken or gets abused. There are lots of horror stories," she said.

The industry itself says it is aware of the problems and is attempting to self-regulate by establishing hot lines for foreign strippers and developing brochures in English, French, Romanian and Spanish instructing strippers on everything from how to keep their work place clean (by wiping down brass poles they use in their acts) to reminding them that sex with patrons in the clubs is prohibited.

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This week Human Resources Skills Development Canada, which runs the program with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said it will revise its labour-market opinion on strippers on Dec. 15, and that the onus will shift to the employer to prove there is a shortage, as opposed to an assumption that there is one.

Mr. Kurland, the Vancouver immigration lawyer, believes that if HRSDC scales back the program, foreign dancers will merely find other ways to enter Canada. "If you don't let them come in legally, they'll come in illegally, and you'll have to extend more resources to scrutinize the inevitable underground created by the closedown of the program," he said. "There will always be a market for exotic dancers."

He and Mr. Green also say there would be grounds for a class-action lawsuit against the government for arbitrarily stopping the flow of international labour. "This is purely a political decision and not driven by economics. The market demand for exotic dancers is still there," Mr. Kurland said.

In Ottawa, the political furor continues unabated as opposition MPs continue to insist Ms. Sgro has breached federal conflict-of-interest guidelines. She has referred the matter to the federal Ethics Commissioner.

Her aide, Ihor Won, was in hot water with news this week that he had met with the owner of Toronto's House of Lancaster strip club, Terry Koumoudouros, to discuss his unsuccessful bid to bring in Dominican strippers. (Mr. Won did not assist him in granting the visas.)

Yesterday in the House, Conservative MP Helena Guergis asked why "legitimate claimants are left standing in line while the minister allows queue-jumping under a program she says she doesn't support."

Ms. Sgro reiterated that she is a supporter of women's rights, but noted that the exotic-dancing industry "has a need, and we have an obligation to fulfill that need whether I like it or not."

The controversy has allowed every critic of the immigration system to dredge up a more worthy candidate they believe Ms. Sgro should have assisted. One story this week suggested she should help a couple adopt a child from Vietnam -- though there is currently no international adoption program with this country because of concern about trafficking in children.

Others have pointed to the waiting lists, which exceed two years, for skilled workers to be processed to come here as permanent residents, forgetting that foreign dancers receive only temporary visas and are processed in a different stream.

But some immigration lawyers still say they can't seem to get the same kind of attention from Ottawa that some strip-club owners appear to have enjoyed.

"I have never had that kind of access to the minister's office," said Max Berger, a Toronto immigration lawyer. "I have to believe that the story has a lot of currency for the media mainly because it has to do with strippers. If the minister had given a temporary permit to a single mother on welfare or a carpenter, nobody would have cared."

Back at Diamonds Cabaret, Mr. Cohn defends his establishment and says it is not unique in Canada, or anywhere else in today's global economy. "Maybe to Canadians, a couple of hundred girls means a lot, but the majority of Romanian dancers are in other countries, not here -- Japan, Austria, Switzerland, Germany -- where it is closer to home and there is more money."

And despite pledges by two federal ministers to rein in the stripper-visa program, Mr. Cohn says this too will pass. "They've done it in the past; it doesn't matter," he said. "Even if it does, they'll find we need dancers in Canada if this business is to survive."

Visa facts

Q: What is the foreign-dancer program?

A: The busker or performer category is one of dozens of occupations under which foreign workers are granted temporary visas if their Canadian employers can prove to Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that there is a local labour-market shortage. Citizenship and Immigration Canada then grants the foreign strippers temporary work visas to come to Canada.

Q: How many strippers come in a year?

A: Last year, 661 were allowed in; 552 were from Romania.

Q: How large is this category compared to other temporary workers?

A: Last year, altogether 82,151 temporary foreign workers came into Canada in more than 40 different labour categories.

More than 19,000 farm workers came to Canada; 4,847 babysitters and nannies; 1,560 university professors; 764 actors; 529 computer engineers, and 318 cooks.

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