Quebec is not going to emulate Ontario’s approach to online gambling privatization.
A coalition of iGaming operators and other interested parties is pushing for that idea. However, most are not Canadian entities and may not realize how heavily the political deck is stacked against them.
Predicting the future is usually a dicey business, and I’m generally inclined to hedge my guesses. But I’m going to say it again: The Quebec gambling industry is not going to emulate the Ontario online casino approach. I feel confident telling you this as someone who lived there for 30 years.
For one thing, there is the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. This First Nations group, the most populous within Quebec’s borders, is leading the challenge against Ontario’s market.
It’s doing so to protect the interests of the Kahnawà:ke Gaming Commission, which regulates online gambling from the group’s sovereign territory just outside of Montreal. Naturally, MCK would redouble its efforts to prevent the same thing from happening in Quebec.
However, things are unlikely to get that far. The Quebec government will almost certainly deem the idea antithetical to the province’s way of doing things.
Quebec identity is everything, always
A detailed history of Quebec politics is far beyond the scope of this article. But for those unfamiliar with it, the thrust of it is that in the mid-20th century, the Quebécois faced two significant challenges.
Internally, the Catholic Church was far too involved with the day-to-day business of the province for the liking of an increasingly secular populace. Externally, socio-economic pressures were threatening them with cultural assimilation into English Canada.
The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and the sovereignist movement of the 1970s pushed back against these factors and transformed the province. This period was so critical to Quebec that it continues to shape the political discourse six decades later.
So, what do language, identity politics and Quebec sovereignty have to do with gambling? This might be hard to understand if you haven’t lived in Quebec, but the reality is that every proposal is ultimately scrutinized through those lenses.
The Québec Online Gaming Coalition (QOGC) points to a survey by Leger Marketing which found that two-thirds of the public supports the idea. But that’s because it’s not a political topic yet. As soon as it becomes one, the mood will change.
Provincial peer pressure does not apply to Quebec
Petty as it sounds, one reason to expect that Quebec will dislike the plan is that Ontario is doing it. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Quebec will dislike being told to follow Ontario’s lead.
Because of the omnipresent threat of assimilation, Quebec has a knee-jerk reaction against doing anything the same way as the rest of the country. That’s especially true when it comes to being bossed around by the federal government, but the same pushback occurs when the pressure comes from elsewhere.
And Ontario – as the most populous province, the seat of the federal government, and Quebec’s immediate neighbour – is often seen as a stand-in for all of English Canada.
This insistence on homegrown solutions goes right down to the legal roots of the province. Whereas every other province’s system is based on English common law, Quebec’s foundation is the Napoleonic Code. It’s the only province where you have to file your provincial income taxes separately from your federal return. No bureaucratic exchange between Quebec and other provinces is ever frictionless.
I would be overstating things if I said that Quebec will reject the Ontario online sports betting model just to assert its independence. However, if the QOGC plans to hold up Ontario as an example to follow, that’s likely to do more harm than good. There is a fundamental aversion to the idea that solutions that work for the rest of Canada will be directly applicable in la belle province.
Quebec isn’t keen on privatizing anything
Just looking at who’s running the show, you’d be forgiven for seeing parallels between the Quebec and Ontario governments.
Premier François Legault, like his neighbour premier Doug Ford in Ontario, is a right-wing populist with an everyman image, swept into power by rural and suburban economic anxieties. As a person, he’s likely to be drawn to many of the same ideas as Ford.
But premiers don’t hold as much individual power as we tend to think. Governments are complex organisms with minds of their own. Often, the person nominally in charge is as much at their mercy as everyone else.
In Ontario, the government has been frantically privatizing as much as possible for decades. In Quebec, it’s a very different story.
One of the biggest successes of the Quiet Revolution was the nationalization of hydroelectricity in the province. That came alongside the slogan “maîtres chez nous,” i.e., “masters in our own home.”
The public has not forgotten that. Just last week, Legault had to defend the decision to allow private construction companies to work on hydro dams, with some wondering whether he was flirting with the idea of partial privatization.
“Quebec has nothing against the private sector,” he protested.
Yet the pushback told a different story.
Quebec is equally protective of its lottery and gaming entity, Loto-Québec. Unlike Ontario and most other provinces, it does not subcontract the operations of its casinos to private companies, but runs them directly through a subsidiary.
In 2015, Loto-Québec became concerned with offshore competition to its iGaming site, Espace Jeux. The province produced a list of foreign gambling websites and ordered Internet service providers to block access to them.
That effort fell to a constitutional challenge. However, it highlights how Quebec feels about its Crown Corporations and the prospect of private-sector competition.
Language and buy-local issues
Even when it comes to the private sector, Quebec is very keen on keeping money inside the province. “Buy local” is a much more prevalent concept in Quebec than in other parts of Canada.
You can see that even when it comes to things like fast food and casual dining options. Aside from the truly ubiquitous brands like McDonald’s, you’ll find a lot more homegrown chains like Lafleur, Normandin, and St-Hubert than franchises from other provinces or the US.
If it were to accept a privatized online gambling market, Quebec would want to see the same thing. Residents losing money to private companies might be acceptable if they were local private companies. These would have to conduct business in French, employ French-speaking residents (or those who are fluently bilingual), and build their websites and apps from the ground up in French.
Bleeding money to US and European corporations using poorly-localized products they developed for use in English-speaking markets? That would not go over well.
The QOGC might try to sell Quebec on the possibilities for such homegrown operators. However, a quick glance at the US would debunk that promise. It’s evident that the likes of DraftKings, BetMGM and Caesars are intent on using their deep pockets to advertise their way to market share dominance wherever they can operate.
Quebec is not delusional. It would not buy into the belief that a hometown hero, founded tomorrow, could go toe-to-toe with those giants in an open market.
Because of that, the Ontario model will not find acceptance. If online gambling privatization comes to Quebec, it will have strings attached. The province will want to ensure priority for local businesses.
If not Quebec, then where?
The same companies forming the QOGC might fare better elsewhere in the country.
Before the Ontario market launched, I wrote an explainer series for the now-decommissioned Online Poker Report. (The series is still available at Bonus.com, where I am now managing news editor).
In the final part of the series, I addressed the question of which provinces were likely to follow Ontario’s lead and produced this map:
You can see that I rated Quebec just a notch better than the proverbial snowball’s chance in hell. (Saskatchewan and most of Atlantic Canada are impossibilities for other reasons.)
PlayCanada also handicapped which provinces might next launch an open online gambling market. I agree that the prospects aren’t quite as bleak in the western part of the country. Alberta’s already halfway there, having begun to privatize retail sports betting.
British Columbia is the third-ranked province in Canada for population, after Ontario and Quebec. It’s a likely place to look next. It would be a tougher sell than Alberta because it has invested heavily in its lottery-operated iGaming site PlayNow. However, the population is more split on privatization vs. nationalization, and the politics are not as steeped in issues of provincial identity.
Manitoba and New Brunswick are also possibilities. But with fewer than 2 million people between them, the question is whether the operators would be interested.