TORONTO - Never before has it been more important for some people to mind their language. Literally.
Exercise jockey Wilbert Gobay is among dozens of temporary workers like horse walkers, groomers and trainers at Woodbine Racetrack who’ve failed English language tests and fear losing their contracts and being sent home.
Gobay, 46, has been travelling to Woodbine from his native Jamaica to work as a jockey for 10-months of the year since 2008. He plans on becoming a permanent resident and sponsoring his family but he must prove he can speak either English or French.
Starting in July, those deemed by Canadian immigration authorities as low skilled workers under a Provincial Nominee Program are required to take and pass English reading, writing, speaking and listening tests.
Only then can they can obtain or renew their visa or become permanent residents of Canada.
The three-hour $255 test is required for seasonal farm workers, those in the construction trades, fast food, hospitality and many other low-paying jobs that Canadians won’t perform.
“I am from an English-speaking country and I still failed,” Gobay said. “I cannot become a permanent resident or citizen until I pass this test.”
Gobay said a pass means he can move up the ladder to become a race-day jockey and earn more money.
“I truly don’t know anyone here that has passed the test,” he said. “We have jockeys here from around the world and we are all in the same boat.”
Fellow jockey Fitz Lewis, 45, of Jamaica, said he has been studying for the exam.
“They tell me the test is very hard,” Lewis said. “I have been trying to brush up and do some reading.”
He said the process brings undue stress to those who may lack English skills.
Jockey Richard Reid, 38, of Jamaica, said he’s been travelling to Canada yearly to work since 2005.
“I am very disappointed by not getting a passing grade,” Reid said of a failed test. “I have been studying hard and wanted to bring my family here by now.”
Groomer Michael Reid, 48, said he’s hitting the books to get a grasp on the language.
“I will be studying hard,” Reid said. “It is difficult but I have to do my best to pass this.”
Roy Kellogg, an immigration consultant who represents Gobay, said the men may have no other choice but to rewrite the failed exam.
“I don’t understand the purpose of the test because these guys only speak to horses all day,” Kellogg said. “Why do workers have to know how to speak
English if they come here to pick fruit or pluck chickens.”
Kellogg said potential workers won’t have the money or resources at home to travel to a centre to obtain language approval for a visa to Canada.
“We are going to lose a lot of our low-skilled workers because of this,” he said. “There will be a shortage of workers and I can see prices rising.”
Woodbine Racetrack officials said they were aware of the issue and refused comment.
Other trades requiring English-language tests includes: chefs, cooks, butchers, bakers, contractors, machinists, plumbers, pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, masonry, librarians, photographers and museum workers