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Toronto human trafficking arrests shine spotlight on popular classifieds site. Sex worker advocates fear another crackdown

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After a series of human trafficking arrests involving the same online classifieds site, a Toronto sex worker says she worries a crackdown on internet sex ads could make her more vulnerable.

Toronto police have charged eight GTA residents with dozens of charges in four separate cases this year involving the website LeoList.com. In one, police say a 17-year-old schoolgirl was taken to a series of GTA motels by a man with a gun and forced to sell her body to strangers.

The latest bust was announced last week, after police say a man physically assaulted a 28-year-old woman several times, including one attack that left her with broken ribs.

In all four cases, alleged pimps forced women to place sex ads on LeoList.com and took all of their earnings.

In one, an alleged pimp even threatened a sex worker’s pet, police said.

“I can tell you stories that will fill your head,” Perry said.

But the Toronto sex worker, whom the Star is not naming because she fears for her safety, said she worries a sweeping crackdown against human trafficking on the internet could push independent adult sex workers underground.

The 30-year-old sex worker, whose real name is known by the Star, is a member of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network. She said she has been a sex worker in Toronto for two years.

She said sex workers use the internet to vet their potential clients and even ask for references.

“They can screen,” she said. “They can increase their safety.”

Toronto police declined to comment on LeoList.com. The Star attempted to contact the website by email and at a toll-free phone number listed on the site’s contacts page, but received no response.

LeoList.com’s terms of use ask users to immediately report suspected human trafficking to police and say the site will cooperate with law enforcement “to the fullest extent possible.”

There’s a major difference between sex trafficking, in which girls and women are coerced into prostitution, and the sex trade where adult women make independent decisions, said Karen Campbell of the Toronto-based Canadian Women’s Foundation.

The 2018 shutdown of the site Backpage.com, once a popular host for sex workers’ ads, was distressing for many, Campbell said in an interview.

“It pushed a lot of people back onto the streets,” she said.

Cracking down on online sex ads also won’t help undocumented women who are reluctant to go to police, she said.

“If they were to go to police, they would end up detained and deported,” she said.

Read more:

Backpage.com shutdown puts sex workers’ livelihoods, safety at risk, GTA advocacy group says

Beaten. Branded. Bought. Sold: A Star investigation into the dark underbelly of sex trafficking in Ontario

Sex trafficking case turns on whether websites can be held liable for content created by users

Perry said the average Toronto sex worker when he was on the job entered the sex trade at age 14.

There seemed no end to men wanting to prey upon them, Perry said.

“We had a mandate to rescue these kids, get them help and go after the pimps,” Perry said. “Every time we arrested a pimp, there were two or three to take his place.”

Perry said fewer sex workers could be seen on the streets after pagers became popular a few decades ago, a change he said made it tough for police to monitor their safety.

“A lot of the girls that used to work the streets were suddenly carrying pagers,” Perry said. “At least when they were on the street we knew them.”

When sex work was more visible on downtown streets, it was easier for social workers to try to help women and for police to keep an eye on their customers, Perry said.

“They may be in a more vulnerable position now because they have no interaction with police,” Perry said. “Prostitutes don’t generally walk into a police station and report intimidation.”

Some Toronto sex workers were local residents while others came from abroad, smuggled into the city on the hopes of getting a job, Perry said.

There was some organized crime involvement, often connected with bikers and strip clubs, he said.

Perry said he fears pimps now use websites to fly under the police radar and exploit women. Some websites are out of the country, presenting jurisdictional challenges for police.

“We’re almost giving a license for pimps to be anonymous and control women,” Perry said.

LeoList.com, which bills itself as “Canada’s classified site,” automatically redirects to the address leolist.cc — using the internet country code of the Cocos Islands, a tiny Australian territory. The contact page refers to Unicorn House Ltd., a company based in Budapest, Hungary.

To post an ad, users are charged a cost ranging from free to more than €2.50 ($3.75 Canadian) — the site bills in euros — depending on region and category.

As of Wednesday, a personals ad for a female escort in the GTA costs the poster €2.65. That same ad in Hamilton costs €1.79; an ad for a male escort in Ottawa is free.

The personals section contains dozens of recently posted ads for male and female escorts across the GTA. Many of the site’s other classifieds categories — including for vehicles, housing and jobs — appear little used.

The site’s landing page boasts it has more than 150,000 registered users and millions of total ads.

LeoList.com appears to have become more popular since Backpage.com was shut down by the FBI last year; before Backpage.com, classifieds site Craigslist was one of the most popular sites for advertising sexual services.

A study of sex ads on Craigslist released this year by researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, supports the Toronto sex worker’s comments that the internet can make the sex trade safer.

The study suggests that the old Craigslist “erotic services” ads made sex work safer by helping sex workers screen out the most dangerous clients.

The internet allowed women to do background checks of clients, even seeking references, the Baylor team found. It also “may have caused outdoor street-based prostitution to transition to the safer, indoor channel,” researchers found.

Scott Cunningham, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview he suspects LeoList.com is absorbing a market once filled by Backpage.com.

“The market is probably adjusting in Canada,” he said.

Cunningham said he wasn’t surprised the Toronto woman said internet ads make her feel safer and freer of pimps.

“Sex workers have been saying this for years,” he said.

Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at pedwards@thestar.ca

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Anglais

Nostalgia and much more with Starburst XXXtreme

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Get a taste of adventure with Starburst XXXtreme based on the legendary NetEnt Game. The nostalgic themes are sure to capture fans of the classic version as they get treated to higher intensity, better visuals, and features. The most significant element of the game is its volatility. Patience will not be an essential virtue considering the insane gameplay, and there is a lot of win potential involved. It retains the original makeup of the previous game while adding a healthy dose of adrenaline. 

Starburst Visuals and Symbols

The game is definitely more conspicuous than before. The setting happens over a 5-reel, 3-row game grid with nine fixed win lines, which function if a succession from the left to the right reel is present. Only those players that that attain the highest win per bet line are paid. From a visual standpoint, the Starburst XXXtreme slots illustrates lightning effects behind the reels, which is not surprising as it is inherited from the original version. Available themes include Classic, Jewels, and Space. The game is also available in both desktop and mobile versions, which is advantageous for players considering the global pandemic. According to Techguide, American gamers are increasingly having more engaging gaming experiences to socialize to fill the gap of in-person interaction. Starburst XXXtreme allows them to fill the social void at a time when there is so much time to be had indoors. 

Starburst XXXTreme Features

Players get to alternate on three features which are Starburst Wilds, XXXtreme Spins, and Random Wilds. The first appears on reels 2,3, or 4. When these land, they expand to cover all positions while also calculating the wins. They are also locked for a respin. If a new one hits, it also becomes locked while awarding another respin. Starburst XXXtreme offers a choice between two scenarios for a higher stake. In one scenario with a ten times stake, the Starburst Wild is set on random on reels 2,3, or 4, and a multiplier starts the respin. The second scenario, which has a 95 times stake, starts with two guaranteed starburst wilds on reels 2,3, or 4. it also plays out using respin game sequence and features. The game also increases the potential with the Random Wilds feature to add Starburst Wilds to a vacant reel at the end of a spin. Every Starburst Wild gives a random multiplier with potential wins of x2, x3, x5, x10, x25, x50, x100, or even x150.

The new feature is sure to be a big hit with the gaming market as online gambling has shown significant growth during the lockdown. AdAge indicates the current casino customer base is an estimated one in five Americans, so Starburst XXXtreme’s additional features will achieve considerable popularity. 

What We Think About The Game

The gambling market has continued to diversify post-pandemic, so it is one of the most opportune times to release an online casino-based game. Thankfully Starburst XXXtreme features eye-catching visuals, including the jewels and space themes. These attract audience participation and make the gameplay inviting. The game also has a nostalgic edge. The previous NetEnt iteration featured similar visuals and gameplay, so the audience has some familiarity with it. The producers have revamped this version by tweaking the features to improve the volatility and engagement. 

That is characterized by the potential win cap of 200,000 times the bet. Starburst XXXtreme does not just give betting alternatives for players that want to go big. The increase of multipliers also provides a great experience. If the respins in the previous version were great, knowing that multipliers can go hundreds of times overtakes the game to a new level. 

Players should get excited about this offering. All of the features can be triggered within a single spin. Whether one plays the standard game or takes the XXXtreme spin route, it is possible to activate all of the features. Of course, the potential 200,000 times potential is a huge carrot. However, the bet size is probably going to be restricted and vary depending on the casino. It is also worth pointing out that a malfunction during the gameplay will void all of the payouts and progress. Overall, the game itself has been designed to provide a capped win of 200,000 times the original bet. 

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Anglais

‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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