Canadian Sports Betting Bill Passes Senate With Hours To Spare

Single-game sports betting could arrive in Canada as early as this fall after historic vote

At long last, single-event sports betting is coming to Canada.

Forced to endure years of failed legislation and unfavorable odds through multi-leg parlays, Canadian sports bettors rejoiced Tuesday when the final vote was tallied. Facing a tight deadline ahead of summer recess, the Senate of Canada passed a bill on single-game sports wagering, 57-20, with five abstentions. The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act amends a section of the Criminal Code of Canada to make it lawful for a province to conduct and manage a lottery scheme that involves betting on a single sporting event. Although parlay wagering has been legal in Canada since 1985, it is only allowed on a limited basis through provincial lotteries.

The adopted bill is slated to become law once it receives Royal Assent in the coming days, said bill sponsor Sen. David Wells. Canadians wager about U.S. $14 billion on single-event sports annually, according to Parliamentary research. Once signed into law, the onus to regulate the activity will fall upon the nation’s five provincial lottery corporations — each of which already offers parlay style sports betting.

“This bill, once it becomes law, will make it possible for single-event sports betting to be regulated – and it will increase consumer protections and safeguards,” Wells said in a statement. “Revenue streams going to illegal actors will dry up and be redirected to Canadian communities in a way that is legal and taxable. This is a critical moment for Canada, as single-event sports betting will finally be brought into the light of day.”

An anxious period

For months, proponents of single-event sports betting were on pins and needles. While the bill, C-218, received unilateral support in both chambers of Parliament, the political environment in Canada has been marred by tense in-fighting between the nation’s major parties throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The friction between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Labor Party and his Conservative opposition fueled intense speculation that Trudeau could call for an early election later this year. On Tuesday, Trudeau accused members of the Conservative Party of engaging in obstructionist tactics in attempts to scuttle his minority party’s agenda.

Despite the continued strife, leaders from numerous parties largely reached consensus that the timing was right to decriminalize single-game betting. Trudeau, who assumed office in 2015, even voted in favor of the bill this spring in the House of Commons. But had the prime minister dissolved Parliament through a maneuver known as “prorouging,” efforts to legalize single-event sports betting likely would have returned to square one. As a result, sponsors of C-218 rushed to pass a bill at third reading, hours before the Senate is scheduled to depart for summer vacation on Wednesday.

Over the last week, the introduction of several amendments complicated matters. One amendment proposed by Ontario Sen. Vernon White sought to modify the criminal code by including language that would explicitly prohibit match-fixing. Another amendment introduced by Sen. Mary Jane McCallum proposed changes to the criminal code that would allow Indigenous nations to offer a lottery scheme for sports betting. Had either amendment passed, the provisions would have been kicked back to the House for approval.

With less than 48 hours left in the session, the sponsors may have run out of time if the bill had to be sent back to the House. On Monday evening, an amendment that would have prevented the bill from being read a third time failed by a 43-21 margin.

Wells, an accomplished mountaineer, has scaled several of the world’s top peaks including Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest mountain. Wells likened the challenges of passing the historic bill to the preparation required for completing an arduous climb. In 2011, Wells reached the summit of Kilimanjaro in seven days.

As the Senate neared the finish line, Wells credited support from his colleagues and top professional leagues for completing the final push. In recent months, the bill on single-event sports betting received the backing of major professional leagues such as the NHL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and Canadian Football League, as well as the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“In high-altitude mountaineering the biggest thing is not the climb, it’s the preparation,” Wells told Sports Handle. “If you go in with a solid plan, it’s not unlike doing a climb like Kilimanjaro or Elbrus. If you do your preparation, your chances of success are good even with the closing window that we had.”

The CFL, in particular, lobbied vigorously for passage of the bill. Last month, CFL Commissioner Randy Ambrosie described single-game sports betting as a financial lifeline for the cash-strapped league. The CFL canceled its 2020 season due to the global pandemic, but it announced last week that the 2021 regular season will begin in August.

“Amending the Criminal Code in this way will move sports wagering out of the shadows and into the light of day where it belongs,” the CFL said in a statement. “We now look forward to working with the provinces as they create strong regulatory standards and enforcement, ensuring sports wagering is offered to consumers with the proper level of controls and supervision.”