What Canada Day should mean for immigrant workers at the Hastings Race Course

EDITOR’S NOTE: On June 29th the Georgia Straight published this piece by Latino activist, Mainlander contributor, and COPE Executive Richard Marquez. However, after receiving a call from Howard Blank, Vice-President of the Great Canadian Gaming Corp., the Straight‘s editor decided to pull the piece shortly after posting it.

The Straight gave two reasons for their hasty decision: firstly, that Marquez didn’t interview Blank directly, secondly, that he failed to give quotes from workers at the Hastings Race Course. According to this troubling view of what constitutes a publishable piece of journalism, writings under the heading ‘news commentary’ must now take the form of exclusively-verifiable data, micro-managed by popular media’s ongoing loss of social critique, analysis and anything that cannot be reduced to either a fact or a soundbite. In this case, the expectation that journalists can freely gather information from precarious migrant workers is especially naive given that those who speak out are currently being blacklisted by their employers and denied re-entry visas to Canada.

The Mainlander is publishing Marquez’s censored article as a continuation of our attempt to present an alternative to the outer limits of ‘journalism’ in Vancouver. In addition the piece is being published to support the basic point made by Marquez that not only is the exploitation of migrant labourers common in Canada, but that it is the law. Contrary to what the Straight assumes, the burden of proof lies with Canadian employers like Great Canadian Gaming to show that they are pro-worker, not on journalists to “prove” that they are not — something which nonetheless is not difficult based on today’s interface of mega-corporations and federal labour laws.


What began in 2006 as an immigrant-sponsored sojourn for then-impoverished 19-year-old Mexican jockey Mario Gutierrez has now become the stuff of modern-day Canadian folklore. Five years ago Gutierrez came to race thoroughbreds at Hastings Race Course in Vancouver. Since then he’s raced over 2,000 times, earned over $7.7 million in profits for owners, and with his Triple Crown run injected a huge money shot into the city’s gaming business. “Mario’s been able to reach out to everybody, people not even thinking about racing, to sort of make it an entertainment option,” said Howard Blank, vice-president of the company that runs the Hastings Park racetrack, Great Canadian Gaming Corp.

In May, “Super Mario Day” was held to honour Gutierrez at Hastings after winning the Kentucky Derby aboard Triple Crown threat “I’ll Have Another,” previously owned by Canadian millionaire J. Paul Reddam. (A week ago “I’ll Have Another” was sold and exported as a stud to a wealthy Japanese horse breeding company for an undisclosed sum and soon to be exported.)

That day, Hastings was bumping with “Go-Mario-Go!” t-shirts, shorts and souvenir Mario bobble-heads. Racing fans dropped big bucks playing the ponies. Late this summer, the City of Vancouver will present Gutierrez with a special proclamation. Lost in the marketing mayhem of Mario’s rags-to-riches story and his come-from-behind victories on I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown quest are the ordinary Hastings Track backstretch heroes who wake up before the sun hits the turf, who live in the hidden backrooms of barns, who pay taxes, and who make it a fun day at the races for racing fans. Vancouver Sun reporter Denise Ryan poignantly observed in her June 9 article that:

…many who work here do casual labour, but find meaning in their relationship with the horses; many live in the tack rooms and are homeless in the off-season…Virtually no one in the backstretch has benefits.

And many, of course, are also spanish-speaking immigrants with seasonal agricultural visas, susceptible to labour exploitation and limited worker protections, who clean Hasting’s dirty stalls, hot walk and groom the horses, and literally do whatever dangerous task is required to serve the horse racing industry.

On Monday, July 2, a Canada Day independence celebration is planned at Hastings Race Course and the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation is in full-throttle, billing it as “Mario Returns to Hastings Day.” It’s time to seize the moment and expand civil rights protections for Hastings backstretch workers; it’s time to pay immigrant workers a living wage not merely the provincial minimum (a minimum for seasonal workers has been recently reduced to 85% of the legal minimum wage in all Canadian provinces). It’s time to extend full health benefits to immigrant backstretch workers; and it’s time to build decent, safe and affordable housing for all low-income workers. And it’s time for citizenship rights to be given to all immigrant workers that make the horse racing industry run in Vancouver!

Yes, Vancouver’s adopted son returns once again now that “I’ll Have Another,” a racing colt legend and winner of the Derby and Preakness, was retired to stud a week ago. This Vancouver-bred, neo-Dickensian tale was authored, if you believe mass media hype, by a handful of benevolent visionaries, namely White Rock’s Glenn Todd, famed horse racing trainer; J. Paul Reddam, an Ontario-born businessman and now-former owner of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner “I’ll Have Another”; and Doug O’Neill, the notorious American race horse trainer recently suspended by the CHRB for doping.

This neo-Dickensian feel-good-story was driven, if you were to believe Canadian and American media hype, by the overwhelming generosity of a mythic, pioneering and all white-male cast of good-hearted trainers, investors and the owner, Reddam, himself. Gutierrez has been remade into a fabled made-for-television miniseries and is now a Canadian product that we can all be proud to purchase. Not to be lost in this corporatized bonanza is the lucrative killing made, so far, on the success of “I’ll Have Another.”

Nowhere in this Canadian tale is there a hint of racialized exploitation, unlike the daily humilations seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico suffer harvesting grapes for the wine industry in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, or better yet working at the Hastings Race Course.


Photo credit: Rob Carr/Getty Images