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City hears input from advocacy groups, parlour owner
There were differing views expressed at a public meeting on massage parlours Wednesday evening at city hall.
The meeting was held to gather public comments on a proposed amendment to development regulations allowing massage parlours in various commercial zones in the city.
City planner Ken O’Brien said at the opening of the meeting that the city welcomed the public’s thoughts on terminology that could be used to describe massage parlours, because the city is struggling with a term to use.
He said registered massage therapists told the city they did not like the use of the word "massage," yet massage parlour workers have said the term "body rub parlours" is stigmatizing.
City documents say the city proposed replacing "massage parlour" with "body rub parlour" because it is a term used in some other Canadian jurisdictions.
As well, O’Brien welcomed the roughly 30 people gathered to provide input on the location of massage parlours. The draft regulations permit them in several commercial zones, but with minimum distances required from residential or apartment zones, schools, daycares, places of worship and the war memorial.
Councillors Sandy Hickman, Hope Jamieson, and Maggie Burton attended the meeting, which was chaired by Glenn Barnes, an architect.
While advocacy groups Safe Harbour Outreach Program (SHOP) and Thrive both work with sex workers, the groups offered opposing perspectives on the city’s decision to lift the moratorium.
Melendy Brace works with Thrive’s Coalition Against the Sexual Exploitation of Youth (CASEY), but when she spoke at the meeting she said she spoke as a survivor of exploitation.
Brace said the city should slow down with its move to lift the moratorium, suggesting waiting a year until “the province is ready,” suggesting a need for housing for women who want to get out of doing sex work.
Another person who said she worked with CASEY said the province has no regulations, and wondered whether someone with a history of violence would be permitted to operate a massage parlour, or whether there would be a limit on the number of licences available.
However, city staff say those are concerns to be addressed by the province because the city’s jurisdiction deals only with the zoning and siting of businesses, not what happens inside them.
Meghan Hollett, vice-chair of Happy City, said she appreciates that city council is trying to push the province to act on this.
‘Four years of listening’
Heather Jarvis advocates for the rights of sex workers as program co-ordinator with SHOP.
“In terms of lifting the moratorium, it was actually four years of listening,” she said, adding the moratorium was initially put in place in 2015 without consulting sex workers, and had the harmful effect of pushing workers underground.
Jarvis has connected city council with the perspectives of more than 25 women with lived experience, and, she said, like any group of people, there is not consensus among people with lived experience.
However, she said most of the women she has worked with believe lifting the moratorium would increase safety.
Currently, one man, Norm Lush, owns all of the massage parlours in St. John’s.
He was at the public meeting, and said no one has asked him what he wants.
He repeatedly shouted in the direction of city staff and councillors, “Why are you pushing it?”
He said the city needs to slow down the process of lifting the moratorium – that he owns three massage parlours and he can’t fully staff those, “so there’s no need for more,” he said.
When The Telegram previously spoke with two massage parlour workers about their thoughts on lifting the moratorium, they said they believe competition in the market would improve conditions for workers.
As for terminology used by the city to describe massage parlours, Jarvis recommended a survey of sex workers in the community about a term with which they would be comfortable.
Burton said she would like to do such a survey, and will try to do it quickly to ensure the issue of the moratorium is soon resolved.
Background on moratorium
Council placed a moratorium on approval of new massage parlours in 2015. It was meant to be a temporary response to neighbourhood complaints until the city had new development regulations.
The city prepared draft regulations, approved them in principle in March, and since then they have been held up at the province.
“At some point, a prudent delay becomes a stalling tactic,” Burton said at a council meeting at the end of September.
While waiting on the province, council is considering making an amendment to the current regulations to lift the moratorium now, with the definition and siting criteria outlined in the draft
regulations, but first council decided to seek public input via the public meeting and written comments.
The idea for a public meeting was suggested by Deputy Mayor Sheilagh O’Leary, who was not at the meeting.
The moratorium on massage parlours will be lifted, it’s just a question of how soon.
“We cannot ban massage parlours because it’s a business, and it’s a legal business, so there’s no way that the city can ban a legal business,” Mayor Danny Breen previously told The Telegram.
The information gathered from public engagement will be brought to a future meeting of council, when the amendment will be considered. Burton said public meeting minutes could take up to a month to come back to council.