People who live near a Victoria Avenue massage parlour run by failed political candidate Trevor Wowk say the City of Regina has been sitting on its hands while their neighbourhood deteriorates.
Neighbours say that Wowk, who ran for the People's Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election, has been aggressively promoting the massage parlour and welcoming guests at all hours of the day and night since early 2019.
A CBC investigation earlier this year found that the facility, staffed in part by Wowk's wife, offers clients sex in exchange for cash, though Wowk denies that.
The city has passed a new bylaw aimed at regulating body rub establishments, which it defines as "a place that provides or advertises massage services for sexual pleasure." An official with the city said Wowk's business is a suspected body rub establishment.
The city says it began enforcing the law at the beginning of May, but Wowk's neighbours aren't impressed. They say the city has looked the other way for years and they don't have much faith that the system will be able to reign him in.
"The problem is that he's playing the game because he knows that the city cannot do much," said Lou Spasic, who lives across the street from Wowk.
Wowk's next door neighbour Rhonda Agopsowicz said that for much of the past two years, the home was decorated with Christmas lights in every window and flashing "open" signs at the front and back.
She said the business is infuriating.
"There was men constantly. I would kind of stare them down," she said. "A few of them would turn around and go away."
She said many more would go in.
"We're not stupid. They're going in for 20 to 30 minutes and coming out. Like it's a brothel. You know it's a brothel," said Agopsowicz.
Agopsowicz said she has complained to the city many times and city officials are well aware of what's going on in the home. She said she is upset that the city she pays taxes to has done nothing about the situation.
"They know what it is. They can't say they don't know what it is," said Agopsowicz.
"Why are they scared to do anything?"
'Why is this so difficult?'
The Spasic family, which lives across the street from massage parlour, has also been complaining for two years.
In September 2019, they made a formal presentation to city council as it was considering a new bylaw aimed at regulating massage parlours.
In the presentation, the Spasic's identified the Victoria Avenue home as hosting "illegal activities (e.g. adult entertainment) conducted 24/7."
In October 2020, the city passed it's body rub bylaw.
The bylaw says the establishments cannot be located in residential areas, only industrial zones. It also requires the facilities to follow a host of new rules.
Enforcing that law on the city's 19 suspected body rub establishments may be a challenge.
In an interview, Wowk said that if the city tries to force his business and other massage parlours he helps run to move, he will see them in court.
"We're established incorporated companies," he said. "We're fully anticipating that at some time in the foreseeable future we're going to court to force the city to back off."
Though the city passed the bylaw last year, it didn't start enforcing the rules right away, opting to provide businesses with a six month "grace period" which would allow the businesses time to relocate.
That grace period expired April 28. Not a single business moved or even applied for a licence under the new scheme during that time.
Lou Spasic said his patience with the city has run out.
"The city said, I remember, 'we know what's going on there but we don't have the proof,'" said Spasic. "At that time I said 'OK it's not difficult to get the proof… you can call. You can pretend that you're a customer and you can find out."
Spasic worries this is going to drag on for years.
"He's going to continue doing the business and we all surrounding him, we're going to suffer," said Spasic.
"Why this is so difficult? I just don't understand. "
'We are not a rub and tug business'
According to Rhonda Agopsowicz, Wowk moved into the home in early 2019 with a woman he introduced as Betty.
She recalls the first time they met.
"His first actual words were 'Hi, I'm Trevor. This is Betty.' He said 'I just want to let you know we are not a rub and tug.'" said Agopsowicz. "Rub and tug" is the crass colloquial term for a massage parlour that offers sexual services.
She said Wowk told her Betty didn't speak much English but, "she's actually a certified masseuse. She does deep tissue massage."
She said Wowk also told her that Betty didn't only practise massage, but she also taught students.
"He told me 'You might see other younger girls here,'" Agopsowicz said.
Wowk gave Agopsowicz the website address to the ad he was running for the massage parlour. She said it confirmed her suspicions.
"I go on the site and what do I see is women in negligees giving their address and 'come for the Regina experience,'" she said.
Betty, who's legal name is Baiping Wang, also goes by the name Mia. She is now running a different massage parlour in Regina where sex is offered for sale.
In April, someone at her phone number texted an undercover CBC reporter, offering a "very good massage with condoms, [oral sex] and having sex." The respondent also texted a picture of Betty.
When reached for comment, Betty replied that the reporter was not communicating with her but with an employee who inappropriately shared a picture of Betty rather than her own picture. Betty said she doesn't have sex with clients.
Agopsowicz said having this facility next door has been costly. She said she used to bring in female Chinese and Japanese exchange students to live with her, but having a massage parlour next door made that untenable.
She said she had one student who had lived with her for a decade, but ended up moving out after she and a friend were approached by Betty.
Agopsowicz said Betty asked the students, "if they knew any young Asian girls that would come and like to live with her because she was lonely there."
"That really made [her] very uncomfortable because she knows what's going on there."
'That was very painful for me'
Spasic said the last two years have been horrible because "all my windows are toward that house. So I know what's going on."
He said for a time he would photograph the men as they would arrive. Some wore business suits while others seemed to be construction workers. Eventually all that traffic and the Christmas lights in every window became too much for him to handle.
"It's a little bit annoying, but I usually just close the curtains," he said. "So much. So ugly that I couldn't stand it."
He said his young son started asking questions about the reason for all the lights. Spasic just told his son the people really like Christmas lights.
"So I have to lie."
He said he took on an activist role for a time, fighting to force Wowk to move, but eventually gave up.
"If the city who has the power to make the law cannot do anything, what can I do?"
City says it is taking action
The city said that as of April 28, it has begun taking steps to enforce its new body rub bylaw. It said it has already sent out formal letters notifying businesses of their obligations under the new rules.
City officials say there are 19 suspected body rub establishments in Regina. The city said those operations are now obligated to seek one of two licences.
If they want to be licensed to provide therapeutic massage, the establishment and all the workers will be required to have a membership with one of three professional associations — the Massage Therapists Association of Saskatchewan, the Natural Health Practitioners of Canada or the Canadian Massage and Manual Osteopathic Therapists Association.
If the facility isn't part of those associations but it wants to continue to offer body rubbing services, it will be required to seek a licence as a body rub establishment, offering adult services.
Those establishments will be required to locate in an industrial part of the city, away from homes and schools.
All owners and workers will be required to have criminal record checks and proof that they are eligible to work in Canada. They will also be required to submit to an interview with the Regina Police Service.
The workers will be required to attend annual training sessions, educating them about a wide range of issues from sexual health to personal safety to human trafficking.
The city will also monitor the facilities on a regular basis.
"The city will be providing basically some type of outreach services, which will include going into the establishments to do inspections and make contact with those operating within the establishments," said Dawn Schikowski, the city's manager of licensing and parking services.
The city finds itself in the business of regulating sex work because of Canada's complex prostituion laws. It is legal for someone to sell sexual services in this country, but it is against the law to buy sex or advertise sexual services. It's also against the law to live off the material benefits derived from sex work.
City has conducted investigations
Of Regina's 19 massage parlours, three are in a somewhat unusual situation because they were previously licensed by the city to offer massage services. Wowk's massage parlour falls into that category.
The city said that because Wowk and the two other massage parlours had been licensed in the past, the city will not be able to simply require them to move.
If any of those businesses claim they don't offer sexual services, then the city will have to prove that they do in order to force them to move.
"We would have to conduct an investigation and have evidence that proved that they were providing massage that provided sexual pleasure," Schikowski said.
She said the city has already conducted some investigations, but would not provide any details or she say what would constitute proof.
She said providing that detail "could prevent a successful investigation."
Schikowski said the city has a working group made up of several city departments and the Regina Police Service, and that they have a well-thought-out plan of attack.
She said they will be putting that plan into action over the next few months.