A local racehorse owner, trainer and driver said he'll likely pack his bags and move to the United States if the province follows through with its plans to cancel the Slots at Racetracks program.
Paul MacLean said he does the majority of his racing at Sudbury Downs, which, like most other racetracks in the province, hosts slot machines at its facility in exchange for a profit-sharing agreement with the government.
However, the facility will likely be forced to close its doors when the program ends, he said.
“We'd lose over 500 jobs locally,” MacLean, who owns 15 horses, said. “A lot of people would be moving, like myself ... This is what we've done our whole lives and, unfortunately, it looks like the United States is the place to be going.”
The business owner was just one of several speakers at a rally against the program's cancellation Aug. 27.
The rally, organized by local Progressive Conservatives and the Northern Ontario Horsemen's Association, took place at Robertson's Training Centre, located just down the road from Sudbury Downs in Azilda.
Paula Peroni, who ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Sudbury in the last provincial election, said her party is disappointed with the government's decision to end the Slots at Racetracks program.
“First and foremost, (the decision) was made without any communication and without any consultation to the actual people who are involved in these industries,” she said.
“That's the first mistake. This is a good partnership. It's not a subsidy. It's very clearly a profit-sharing partnership, and it's working.
Anthony MacDonald, a horse driver who hopes to be the Progressive Conservatives' provincial candidate in the Guelph riding, also spoke at the rally.
He was motivated to try his hand at politics because of the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program.
“I think everybody who is passionate about politics has a spark that lights that fire inside them, and, yes, this is the topic that did it,” MacDonald said.
“I mean, it's very near and dear to my heart. It's very heartbreaking to watch this happen. To think that a government could be this callous ... it's very troubling and upsetting.”
Nickel Belt NDP MPP France Gélinas, Nipissing Progressive Conservative MPP Vic Fedeli, Simcoe North Progressive Conservative MPP Garfield Dunlop and Nepean-Carleton Progressive Conservative MPP Lisa MacLeod were originally supposed to attend the rally.
However, because the province recalled the legislature early to pass legislation surrounding teachers' contracts, none of the politicians were at the rally.
Peroni did read a statement from Gélinas, stating the MPP is an ally when it comes to the issue.
“It is becoming clearer, as more information becomes available, that the decision to end the agreement with the slots at racetracks is not a financial decision, but a political one,” Gélinas said in the statement.
“Political decisions can be changed if enough people send the same message to their politicians.”
Now that the house is back in session, the NDP will have more opportunities to put pressure on the government to “review this wrong-headed decision,” she said.
Brian Tropea, general manager of the Ontario Harness Horse Association, which represents 3,500 horse trainers, drivers, breeders and groomers across the province, was another guest speaker at the event.
The recently-released interim report of a government-commissioned panel conducting an impact study shows that between 3,500 and 5,800 people will lose their jobs because of the cancellation of the Slots at Racetracks program.
Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Ted McMeekin said in an Aug. 24 statement that the panel concluded the government made the right decision to end the Slots at Racetracks program.
That's because the program costs taxpayers $345 million a year in subsidies, he said. However, Tropea points out the government actually earns $1 billion a year through the Slots at Racetracks program.
As well, figures from the horse racing industry's provincial regulator state that up to 65,000 people will lose their jobs, he said.
“If the minister of finance didn't talk to the regulator of horse racing before making this decision, who did they consult with?” Tropea asked.
Those in the industry find the assertion that the program is a subsidy “offensive” because it was an agreement negotiated between the two parties, he said.
There are 17 racetracks in Ontario that won't be able to operate without the profit-sharing agreement, Tropea said. One of these facilities — Windsor Raceways — has already announced it won't reopen in September.
“If you displace us, and there's no horse-racing industry, the government's going to have to look after us,” he said.
“The majority of people in this industry aren't highly educated. There's 600,000 people out of work in Ontario. Putting another 60,000 people in those unemployed lines is going to cost the province money.
“Right now we're contributors. We pay taxes. Those tax dollars go to fund health care and education.”
Tropea said he is encouraged by two Progressive Conservative private member's bills dealing with the issue.
One of them, put forward by Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Monte McNaughton, requires referendums be held before a new gaming facility is built in a municipality.
“That language was in the Ontario Gaming Act in the past, but about three months ago, the Liberals snuck that out of the act with the budget bill,” he said.
The other bill, put forward by MacLeod, calls for the auditor general to do an investigation of the circumstances which led to the cancellation of the Slots at Racetrack program.