TORONTO - Horse racing supporters packed the front lawn of Ontario's legislature Thursday to protest the province's decision to shut down its racetrack slots programs.
The cash-strapped government has proposed pulling Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. slot machines from racetracks, a solution it says will help the province battle its mounting deficit.
It's a decision many in the horse racing industry don't agree with. Demonstrators held signs that read: "Save our jobs, save our farms, save our families" and "Why is McGuinty killing the Ontario horse racing industry?" with a picture of a horse hanging from a noose.
Lisa MacLeod, a Progressive Conservative member of provincial parliament, says thousands of jobs will be lost if the province cancels the program, effectively withdrawing the industry's annual $345-million share of slot machine revenues.
"I know full well that there are 60,000 jobs at stake and I know full well there's 1,000 in my city (of Ottawa) alone as a result of the OLG's plans," she said during the rally.
But Finance Minister Dwight Duncan disputed those figures Thursday, saying the number of jobs lost won't equal the amount MacLeod claims.
The government currently has a subsidy share with the racetracks whereby revenue brought in from the slots is split between the racetrack and the government.
By cancelling the subsidy, the government will be taking back its share of the revenue, ultimately ending the revenue-sharing agreement with the tracks, and using that money to help pay down the province's $15-billion deficit.
MacLeod introduced a motion in the legislature Thursday calling on the province's auditor general to review the government's plan and its impact on the horse racing industry. The motion passed after being supported by members of all three political parties.
MacLeod, who represents the Nepean-Carleton riding in the legislature, says she has collected close to 30,000 signatures on petitions calling on the Liberals to rethink the plan, which critics fear will destroy an important agricultural sector in Ontario.
Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, who joined those gathered in front of the legislature Thursday, said he has fond memories of going to the racetrack in his hometown of Fort Erie and of those who work there.
"They're hardworking folks who are up at the crack of dawn, not making a big buck but they love the sport," he said. "They love to have a job in the province of Ontario and not be put out of work."
Karl Schmed, a horse racing supporter, said most people working in the industry don't have an education outside of horse racing and breeding.
"They make a comfortable living," he said. "Half of them are probably going to be on welfare."
Linda Reid, an employee at Toronto's Woodbine racetrack, also works as a real estate agent, but said most people in the industry don't have a back-up plan.
"Third and fourth generation horse people haven't know anything else but this life," she said. "They won't be able to do anything else."
Others fear what will happen to the horses when the programs are shut down.
"I have a farm north of Cobourg," said a teary-eyed Ronda Markle. "If I don't have horses generating me money, how can I keep these horses?"
Markle said she has 15 horses and plans to keep them as long as she can afford to pay $1,200 per month for grain.
Those who can't afford the high cost of keeping horses will likely end up taking them to the slaughter houses, Markle said.
"Why don't they just leave us alone?" she asked. "Let us have our jobs, keep our horses and make a living for ourselves."