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Legal Battle in Canada Over Male Strippers

Canada- They are the Backstreet Boys of the gay adult entertainment world: six hunky American male strippers who have been featured on the covers of Playgirl and Freshman magazines and are considered “first-class” porn stars.

Tommy, a blond, blue-eyed, boy next door, Cypher, who’s “open to anything as long as I have a blast doing it,” and their cohorts were supposed to be a highlight of Lesbian and Gay Pride Week, which begins Monday in Toronto.

But instead of performing at Remington’s strip club, they find themselves at the centre of a legal battle as their lawyer mounts a challenge in Federal Court to Ottawa’s sudden suspension of the controversial exotic-dancer program.

The government has refused to grant temporary work permits to the six strippers, and instead sent them a letter this week saying the program is under review and “no new applications are to be processed for any types of exotic dancers until such time as we have in place the appropriate framework.”

Until now, those bringing in strippers could apply for permits on a case-by-case basis. But the federal government has, with no fanfare, suspended the program.

Michael Battista, the Toronto lawyer representing the U.S. dancers, blames “strippergate,” the scandal that led to the resignation of former immigration minister Judy Sgro in January, for its cancellation.

“It’s having an unintended impact on the gay community,” Mr. Battista said.

“Foreign dancers can’t be ignored just because bureaucrats are afraid of the political fallout. That category of worker exists, the program exists and there is a legal obligation for the government to act.”

Mr. Battista filed an application in Federal Court yesterday, seeking to compel the government to process the dancers’ applications and grant them work visas.

He also said the cancellation of their show will cause significant financial losses to Remington’s, which had hired extra staff and publicized the event as part of Pride Week.

“We had been led to believe they would be given work visas. People have already come looking for them. These are first-class adult porn stars,” said Stefan Sirard, president of FCF Agency, which represents the men.

“The fact that they can’t dance will have a negative impact on Gay Pride.”

The exotic-dancer program, jointly administered by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, offered blanket approval to strippers coming to Canada because of a labour-market shortage.

It came under scrutiny last November after Ms. Sgro granted a temporary worker permit to Alina Balaican. A stripper from Romania, Ms. Balaican had volunteered on Ms. Sgro’s 2004 re-election campaign and concerns were raised about a conflict of interest. (An initial report from Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro found that Ms. Sgro did not know Ms. Balaican was a campaign volunteer, although her staff did.)

Last December, Joe Volpe, then HRSDC minister, cancelled the blanket waiver for exotic dancers, most of whom are women, and indicated applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis. Employers would have to make the case that the foreign dancers would not displace Canadians from their jobs.

Mr. Battista is calling on Belinda Stronach, the former Tory MP who was appointed HRSDC Minister when she crossed the floor last month, to reinstate the program. “She joined the Liberal Party, now she can express and act on values of tolerance to the gay community that forms the basis of Liberal policy.”

A departmental spokesperson was not available for comment yesterday.

Internal memos from Canadian immigration officers and diplomats overseas show that they have grappled with irregularities in the exotic-dancer program over the years, including alleged fraud and prostitution. Some women dancers said they were duped into coming to Canada, while others raised concerns agents demanding kickbacks were exploiting them.

But Mr. Battista said the program fills a legitimate labour-market need and is being curtailed for political reasons.

“This is not a case where women from Eastern Europe are being exploited,” he said. “These dancers are like the Rolling Stones of the gay male entertainment world. They are hugely popular. If they were plumbers they could come in.”

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