The lawyer who represented some of the workers who were arrested at Hastings Racecourse this week says her clients are victims of trusting the B.C. official who issued their credentials.
The backstretch workers, who were among 25 arrested by Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) agents Monday, had mandatory 48-hour review hearings Wednesday.
The province confirmed Thursday the arrests stemmed from an investigation by the province’s gaming policy and enforcement branch (GPEB) into one of its own investigators, who they believe facilitated racetrack licences without proper work authorization.
WATCH: (Aug. 21) New developments in arrests at Hastings Racecourse
Juliana Cliplef, the immigration lawyer assigned to represent the seven workers, said Thursday she was told the workers handed over hundreds of dollars in exchange for those licences, believing they would also grant them legal work status in Canada.
“I’ve heard a range of prices paid from between $600 to $1,000, and I think that’s disgusting,” Cliplef said.
The licences typically cost just $30.
“It’s really unfortunate that someone in a position of trust and authority would deceive people and take their money and tell them they’d be allowed to work here with this card when they weren’t,” she said.
None of the allegations against the official have been proven in court. The official has not been named.
In a statement to Global News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Attorney General said a complaint was first received in October 2018, prompting the GPEB to launch its internal investigation.
That investigation has since been taken over by CBSA due to information uncovered through the GPEB investigation, the ministry said.
“The provincial employee who is the subject of the CBSA investigation does not currently have access to any GPEB offices or government systems,” the spokesperson said.
WATCH: (Aug. 20) CBSA makes multiple arrests at Hastings Racecourse
Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth would not elaborate on the investigation when asked by reporters during an unrelated event Thursday, but said the allegations were concerning.
“It’s under investigation, and I would like to have more information and know where the investigation is before I make a comment,” he said.
B.C. RCMP referred any questions about a possible police investigation into the official to CBSA, who have yet to comment further.
Cliplef said the focus should remain on the official who issued the licences, saying the workers were promised legal employment after entering the country legally as visitors.
She says foreign workers she works with believe Canada’s immigration system is largely free of corruption, and have no reason not to trust a government official.
“If a government official is saying ‘all you need is this licence and you can legally work,’ you are more likely than not to believe them,” Cliplef said.
David Millburn, president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of British Columbia, agreed the workers are not to blame.
“The only offence they committed was working without a work permit, which they thought they were alright doing given they got the licence from the GPEB official,” he said.
WATCH: (June 11, 2018) Penticton businessman under CBSA microscope
Millburn explained the workers are hired by trainers based on the GPEB’s vetting process and proper licences, which the trainers and Millburn believed was done properly.
“They were legal to be in Canada, that’s my understanding,” Millburn said. “And what they did is they were given a licence by a GPEB official and armed with that licence, they conducted their work.”
All seven workers who had hearings Wednesday, most of whom are from Mexico, agreed to voluntarily leave the country and pay for their own flights back home.
The workers have been released with a promise to report back and leave by a certain date, which Cliplef could not recall.
They will have to wait at least a full year before attempting to re-enter Canada, at which time they will have to explain the CBSA enforcement against them.
The GPEB is responsible for issuing licences to racetrack workers, which is required under provincial law. It is also the provincial regulator for the entire gaming industry, including casinos and lotteries.
The application form for the licence requires the worker to state whether they are a Canadian citizen and what their immigration status is.
Those who say they are not a Canadian citizen are required to submit work permit or landed immigrant documents, the form states.
Millburn said he has more questions about why the workers were given licences if they did not qualify for them.
“Most definitely there’s more to this story,” he said. “It could’ve been handled so much differently.”
— With files from John Hua and Sarah MacDonald