'Strippergate' visa row exposes the naked truth about Canada's welcome for Romanian women

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The weather is getting cold across Canada so where do its residents look for a little heat? A good political scandal always helps to lift the early-winter blues.

The weather is getting cold across Canada so where do its residents look for a little heat? A good political scandal always helps to lift the early-winter blues.

Even better, this would be the season to get the country worked up about a steamy government controversy. In other words, sex should be involved.

The nation's thanks should therefore go to its immigration minister, Judy Sgro, whose name has not been out of the headlines for days. Ms Sgro's mistake was this: she allegedly authorised preferential treatment for a Romanian woman who needed a new visa to stay in the country.

So far, so good, until you discover two things. The woman shortly before had volunteered in Ms Sgro's re-election campaign. And then there is the small detail of her profession: she is an exotic dancer.

Welcome to "Strippergate", a media-driven storm that is unlikely to cause long-term grief for the ruling Liberal Party of Prime Minister Paul Martin, but could easily cost Ms Sgro her job. It is also likely to prove very bad news for hundreds of young women in foreign countries - Romania, in particular - who hoped that their particular talents for titillation would automatically earn them a new life in Canada.

Only in the midst of this ruckus have most citizens of the country become aware of one of the more unusual examples of their government's open-arms approach to would-be foreign immigrants.

For years, it has run programmes to import workers for industries that simply cannot find enough Canadians to fill their jobs. And they have included - until now - the exotic dancer industry. Last year, in fact, Canada gave automatic visas to more than 19,000 construction workers from foreign countries, as well as almost 5,000 nannies and 1,560 university professors.

It also welcomed 661 young women to work the strip clubs that are dotted around the suburbs and even some of the downtown areas of cities across the country. Of those, more than 80 per cent were from Romania.

But the red faces in the Liberal government over the Sgro brouhaha have already brought changes. Last week, Ottawa announced that the programme for strippers was to be scrapped after opposition members of parliament suggested the government had, in effect, been acting as a pimp for all the country's lustful males.

In theory, the work of these women is all above-board. They wriggle and writhe with nothing to hide their modesty but high heels and lipstick. In most clubs, they also offer lap-dances in darkened rooms. But sexual acts are against the law in such premises.

"We always say we sell the sizzle, but not the steak," said Tim Lambrinos, of the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada. "No sex is allowed. Can I say it never happens? It happens in broadcasters' offices, in teachers' lounges, in government offices, in airplanes. It probably happens less often in our clubs." But prostitution is legal in Canada and women's rights groups say many of these women quickly end up in prostitution servitude to their bosses.

Ms Sgro is awaiting the outcome of an ethics commission investigation into the case of the woman who worked on her campaign. Her critics have tried to embarrass her further with billboards advertising for dancers at an "Airport Strip Club" in Toronto and encouraging applicants to telephone the minister. But Ms Sgro has defended the now-defunct visas-for-strippers programme, saying that without the foreign dancers, "you'd have to wipe out the whole industry".

A spokeswoman for the Citizenship and Immigration Department said that "exotic dancing is a legal occupation" and therefore qualified for assistance in finding foreign workers, like any other industry.