Canadian Sports Betting Bill Gets Committee Approval, Heads To Full Senate

Written By Robyn McNeil on June 4, 2021
Canadian flag in the shape of the country overlaid with casino imagery. Roulette wheel, Lucky 7s, cards, and stacks of chips.

The bill that would allow for legal single-game sports betting in Canada passed through the Senate Standing Committee on Banking, Trade, and Commerce without amendments on Friday.

That means Bill C-218 now heads back to the Senate for its third reading and possible ascension into law.

C-218’s return to the Senate will be celebrated by many. However, the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK), who asked for the inclusion of legal protections, is likely feeling raw.

Sports betting bill started the week under scrutiny

Earlier this week, Bill C-218, which would allow provinces to legalize online sports betting in Canada, faced the first review of the Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce. The bill, introduced by Conservative Kevin Waugh, could legalize single-event sports betting for all Canadians.

On Wednesday, in the first of three scheduled hearings, senators invited testimony from industry stakeholders. Two panels featuring representatives from a trade association, professional sports league, and Indigenous gaming interests offered their expertise.

The first panel, featuring Canadian Gaming Association’s Paul Burns and Canadian Football League’s Randy Ambrosie, voiced support for the bill.  

“It’s time to level the playing field,” said Burns, CGA’s President and CEO. “To give Canadian gaming operators the opportunity to offer the same product in a legal, licensed and highly regulated environment.” 

“Only by regulating single-event sports betting can we be sure that consumers are protected. That athletes and sports are protected. That the economic benefits stay in the provinces in which they are generated. And that Canadian businesses can compete on a level playing field.”

“This legislation is long overdue,” added CFL’s Ambrosie, noting the potential of a fall election as a reason for haste. 

“Bill C-218 has enormous support amongst Canadians. It was supported in the House of Commons by an overwhelming majority of members. It has the support of sports and entertainment industries. And I can assure you; it has the full support of the Canadian Football League and all nine member clubs. We urge the Senate to move swiftly to consider and support Bill C-218.” 

However, the bill has mixed reception from Indigenous stakeholders. Zane Hansen of Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) offered the authority’s support. The MCK, in contrast, requested an amendment to protect Indigenous gaming rights.

Kahnawà:ke pleads their case

In her opening, Chief Gina Deer acknowledged both the land and recent discovery of children’s remains at Kamloops Residential School. “We stand with the Secwe̓pemc Nation. We are united in grief.”

Deer continued, sharing MCK’s hope their testimony highlights the dangers of crafting legislation without considering the rights of Indigenous Nations.

“Let me be clear, our community endorses the essence of C-280,” she said. “Indeed, Canadians should have the right to bet on single sport or athletic events. Our issue with C-218 as crafted is it fails to properly regard the rights and interests of indigenous peoples. Especially in a case like Kahnawà:ke, where we have been and are actively operating in the sector.”

For context, on June 10, 1996, MCK enacted Kahnawà:ke Gaming Law. In the 25 years since Kahnawà:ke has exercised its inherent jurisdiction over gaming within and from its territory. 

The community built a state-of-the-art data centre on its lands in anticipation of online gaming in 1998. Then in 1999, the Kahnawà:ke Gaming Commission (KGC) enacted its Regulations Concerning Interactive Gaming. It was under those regulations that Kahnawà:ke moved into the online gaming space. By 2005, they became a leader in the global industry. 

Legal underpinnings of an industry

The foundation of Kahnawà:ke’s gaming industry is Section 35(1) of the Canada Constitution Act of 1982. 35(1) recognizes and affirms Aboriginal rights, including rights to land, fish, hunt, cultural practices, and to establish treaties.

In the case of Kahnawà:ke, gaming and sports betting have been part of Mohawk culture since “time immemorial.” Games of chance and wagering on sports, like lacrosse, are integral to Mohawk society. 

With Kahnawà:ke’s operation of land and online gaming, MCK is asserting their inherent right to self-determination. A right unchallenged by any government or authority. Rather, a 2007 ruling by the Superior Court of Québec held in favour of KGC, creating a precedent of legitimacy. 

MCK Chief Ross Montour was careful to note why Kahnawà:ke created their gaming industry in a follow-up reply. 

“One of the reasons that we did set out 25 years ago to determine a jurisdiction for ourselves to enter into this as an avenue to raise revenues for our community is because Québec would not talk to us,” he said. “There was no there was no interest on the part of Québec to have any discussions with Kahnawà:ke.” 

Hansen, speaking for SIGA, representing 74 First Nations located in Saskatchewan, offered a different perspective. A master agreement with the province protects SIGA’s operation of casinos and online gaming.

“This is an important piece of legislation that will certainly assist us, and other gaming operators, across the country.”  

Although sympathetic to Kahnawà:ke’s request for consideration, Hansen feels the issue falls outside the scope of the proposed legislation.

“I understand the interests and the importance of recognition in the Criminal Code of First Nation jurisdiction,” he said. “But that is a much bigger issue than what 218 is.”

Committee hears second day of testimony

Today, the Senate committee heard the second round of witnesses testify before voting to pass the bill.

Speakers included the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) and the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). Also in attendance were the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and the Responsible Gaming Council (RGC). And Donald Bourgeois, a Barrister and Solicitor with more than 30 years of industry experience, appeared as an individual.

Committee chair, Senator Howard Wetston, kicked off the meeting by asking Senators to avoid long preambles in the interest of expediency. Additionally, he tabled an aim to reach clause-by-clause consideration.

“It is a short bill, but an important bill, and has a lot of implications,” said Wetston. “My hope is that given the time constraints…we may be able to get to clause by clause consideration in today’s meeting.” 

During the meeting, testimonies were overwhelmingly supportive of the bill. However, Paul Melia from the CCES requested the industry reinvest some revenue back into amateur sports. Senators also expressed concern over responsible gaming requirements and the potential for match-fixing. However, those concerns appear answered.

Stewart Groumoutis, Director of eGaming for BCLC, didn’t mince words as he closed his testimony.

“We believe single-event sports betting Canada is something we are all ready for.”

Shelley White of the RGC echoed much the same.

“RGC believes it’s in the best interest of Canadians and Canadian society that Bill C 218 should be passed. This would permit provincial authorities to establish a regulatory framework for single-event sports betting with consumer protection at its heart.”

Senate committee moves “in camera” before vote

As the clause-by-clause reading began, Senator Lucie Moncion raised the MCK’s request for amendment, asking fellow Senators if this is “something we want to look at or something we want to disregard?” 

Moncion followed a short time later with, “How harmful is it to add their amendment, or not add their amendment to the bill? How does it change the legislation because I fail to see the issue?”

Moncion’s questions prompted some back and forth between Senators and resulted in the meeting moving “in camera” away from the public eye. Wetston indicated the group would come back and “conclude whether or not we’re prepared to report the bill,” but the live stream never restarted.

Senate Communications Officer Stav Nitka answered an email to Senator Wetston asking for clarification. 

The committee passed Bill C-218 without amendments today. It is now going back to the Senate Chamber for 3rd reading.”

Consequently, the Standing committee cancelled its meeting on C-218 booked for June 9.

What does this mean for Kahnawà:ke?

Before the Senate’s vote today, the MCK posted a release online expressing disappointment in response to lawmakers ignoring their recommendations. They also reiterated that indigenous voices deserve respect in discussions affecting their communities.

“The amendments being proposed by Kahnawà:ke are a real, and meaningful, step towards reconciliation…True reconciliation requires action. It requires dialogue. And it requires being heard. We will not settle for anything less.”

Whether or not Kahnawà:ke has any recourse, for now, remains unknown.

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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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