Legal Canadian Sports Betting Inches Forward In Senate

Written By Robyn McNeil on May 28, 2021
Group of friends with glasses raised in celebration watching soccer on a TV in a sports bar

After nearly a decade, Canadian bettors are as close as they’ve ever been to legalized single-event sports betting. 

Tuesday night, Bill C-218, An Act to amend the Criminal code (sports betting), passed second reading in the Senate. The bill now moves to the Standing Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce for study. 

If it passes, the bill will amend the law to end the ban of betting on sports in Canada. Currently, Canadian law only permits parlay betting. One exception, horse racing, operates on a federally managed pari-mutuel betting system. But, we’ll come back to that shortly.

Canadian sports betting: third time’s a charm?

In late February 2020, Bill C-218 was introduced to the House by Conservative Kevin Waugh, the Member for Saskatoon-Grasswood). The third attempt to legalize sports betting in a decade, the bill received all-party support. However, after Parliament prorogued in August, the bill got reintroduced in September as the second legislative session kicked off. 

In February of this year, C-218 easily passed second reading with a vote of 303-15. From there, the legislation headed to the Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights for review. 

During the review stage, committees study the language of a bill and approve (or modify) the text. Review is when invited witnesses present their views and answer questions. After collecting the external input, a bill undergoes clause-by-clause consideration, and any amendments come into play. With language settled, the Senate votes. If it passes, the Chair sends the bill back to the House.

On return to the House, members may propose additional amendments. If added, debate resumes but only on the bill’s new clauses. At the end of the discussion, or if no modifications are necessary, the bill moves to its third reading. Bills that pass the third reading move to the Senate, where they follow a similar process before becoming law.

In the case of C-218, the House of Commons review gained input from a variety of stakeholders. Operators, sports leagues, industry advocates, associations, authorities, and the horse racing industry all got to participate.   

Notably, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke and the horse racing industry used their time to ask for legal protection. However, only horses were successful in attaining an amendment.

No horse in this race

Before the Criminal Law Amendment Act became law in 1969, legal sports betting in Canada was solely the purview of horse racing. 

The Act introduced legalized gambling through newly established provincial lotteries and included protections for the racing industry. Under racing’s pari-mutuel betting system, bets get pooled, and odds and payouts fluctuate right up until horses leave the gate. Most importantly, operators reinvest some of the profit back into the sector. 

Had C-218 been passed as written, it would permit fixed-odds wagering on horse races. For an industry dependent on betting to cover salaries, maintenance, and other expenses, that change could be a death blow.

Fortunately, the amendment means horse racing stays out of the hands of sportsbooks should the bill become law.

Protecting a Nation’s right

Unfortunately for the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK), similar protections did not follow.

Kahnawà:ke Gaming Law, enacted by MCK in 1996, led to the establishment of the Kahnawà:ke Gaming Commission. For two-plus decades since Kahnawà:ke has asserted its inherent right to conduct and regulate gaming on its lands. Including single-event sports betting.

To protect their gaming industry, MCK is requesting an additional amendment to C-218. The amendment would provide First Nations with the opportunity to negotiate directly with the Federal government. The complex issue deserves more than a paragraph or two can cover. But, MCK feels the committee’s rejection of their amendment entrenches earlier injustices against Indigenous peoples. Particularly a 1985 agreement that sold gaming authority to the provinces — without consulting or considering First Nations.

That said, MCK’s 11 Council Chiefs support the inclusion of the horse racing protections. But, they have concerns the speed of recent progress (to their detriment) may be in anticipation of a fall election.

“We are pleased that the horse racing industry successfully made its case,” said Ietsénhaienhs (Council Chief) Gina Deer

However, consideration of the pleas of elites over an Indigenous community is a “sad indictment” of Canada’s parliamentary process.

“This gives the clear message,” says Deer, “that, for Canada’s Members of Parliament, horse racing is more important than Indigenous communities.” 

Industry to Senate: pass the sports betting bill

MCK’s concerns about the bill’s recent speed aren’t likely easy to dismiss.

The last time a sports betting bill made it this far; it faltered in the Senate committee. Introduced in 2011, Bill C-290 wound up abandoned in 2015 when the country went to the polls. In that light, it’s unsurprising those banking on the legal change might want to prod it along.

Score Media and Gaming (theScore) issued a statement Tuesday night to that effect. 

“We are now one important step closer to legalizing single-event sports betting in Canada,” said CEO John Levy. “We are optimistic that Bill C-218 will be swiftly passed at third reading… receive Royal Assent and become law.”

A statement released by Calgary-based Real Luck Group, doing business as Luckbox, echoed Levy’s sentiment.

“We welcome seeing Bill C-218 pass the second reading in the Senate,” said Thomas Rosander, Real Luck’s CEO. “There is huge demand among sports and esports fans in Canada for betting,” Rosander said. “The industry is expected to be worth billions to the nation’s economy.”

British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) also joined the fray, urging the Senate to prioritize C-218 before adjourning for summer.

“Bill C-218 will provide BCLC with the ability to deliver safe, legal and regulated sports betting… Most importantly – in a way that prioritizes the health of our players,” said Lynda Cavanaugh, President and CEO.

Whether or not the Senate will heed the industry calls remains to be seen. However, during Tuesday night’s debate, various Senators raised the possibility of further amendments. Specifically, Senators had questions around responsible gaming initiatives and match-fixing.

Standing their ground

As for the MCK, The Council of Chiefs has assured their community it will continue to raise objections to Bill C-218. Including pressing the Senate for an amendment that provides Indigenous communities with a meaningful role in Canada’s gaming industry.

“When the Federal Government sold its gaming rights to the provinces for $100 million in 1985, it deepened the inequality that exists in our society,” said Ratsénhaienhs (Council Chief) Mike Delisle, Jr

“The Standing Committee had the opportunity to address this inequity by accepting our suggested amendment to Bill C-218. The Committee refused to do so. Why does the government of Canada treat First Nations as being less worthy of support than the breeders of racehorses?”

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Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, and hoppy beer.

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