Published: May 25, 2024

iGaming Ontario Handed Court Victory Over Mohawk Tribe

Private operator to earn $20 million bonus

The battle over control over Ontario’s bustling legal sports betting industry became a little bit clearer this week with the Ontario courts siding with the current regulator over a Quebec-based Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK) challenge. Ontario is currently the only province where you can legally access our best sportsbooks in Canada.

The decision by Ontario Superior Court Justice Lisa Brownstone essentially concluded that the current iGaming Ontario management structure should remain in place, for the time being at least, and that the “conducting and managing” of Ontario sports betting and online casinos in Ontario should remain under the jurisdiction of the current regulatory body of the industry in the province.

The Supreme Court decision all but ends a current push by the MCK and other private operators to join the legal sports betting fray without a license in the province - at least for now.

Other challenges by entities claiming sovereign rights over legal gambling on their lands may surface. However, the MCK has vowed to cease its challenge and has ruled against any appeal of the decision.

“Although the Council of Chiefs of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke are disappointed in the decision, the silver lining is that the Superior Court of Ontario has recognized that MCK has public interest standing having demonstrated sufficient interest and expertise in the operation and regulation of gaming in Ontario,” Lisa Lahache, Mohawk Council political press attache said in a statement. “The MCK has opted not to appeal the decision and will instead focus on the pursuit and assertion of its interest over gaming via other avenues.”

Case closed?

While the door may not be closed on any further challenges by Ontario’s Indigenous government groups or any private providers, it does make clear which body holds jurisdiction over the Ontario legal sports betting industry and its iCasinos, iGaming Ontario.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Lisa Brownstone concluded, "The controls are detailed and extensive. They show that iGO retains ultimate decision-making authority on a breadth of issues central to the iGaming scheme. It retains a high degree of control over the operators in a wide array of the iGaming scheme’s aspects.”

Brownstone in her decision went as far as saying, "I accept that it is extremely unlikely that a challenge to the iGaming scheme would otherwise be brought before the courts and note that none has been brought to date.”

More about the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke claim

The Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke have long claimed that they have jurisdiction over any gambling platforms on their lands and that originate from their lands. They feel this “Aboriginal right” should be enough for them to be considered a shoo-in for a legal sports betting and iGaming opportunity.

The Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke already have their own gaming commission and currently own a company that runs the popular and widely available Sports Interaction sportsbook and iCasino outside the Ontario market.

The MCK believes that their “Aboriginal rights” are being sidestepped in this incident by the insistence that they register with Ontario provincial regulators and sign contracts with the iGO.

It appears as though the MCK and other hopeful private sports betting entities will not even be considered until such licensing requirements are fulfilled.

Ontario market thriving

Ontario’s legal gambling industry has thrived since launching just over two years ago, posting 13 straight quarter-over-quarter increases. For the last fiscal year ending March 31, 2024, Ontario gambling sites took in a whopping $63 billion. From that came $2.4 million in revenues and just under $500 million in taxes for the province. Residents clearly took advantage of Canada sportsbook promos.

There are more than 70 legal sports betting, casino gaming, and online poker sites in the province, contributing to the impressive numbers. The one thing they have in common is that iGaming Ontario is their regulatory body.

Where it leaves us

While the Mohawks have signaled that they will not appeal the court decision to keep regulatory powers in the hands of the iGO, there were “other avenues” mentioned in the statement by Lisa Lahache, Mohawk Council member. It could mean that the issue is not dead and that there may be another way for Indigenous communities left out of consideration during Ontario’s legal sports betting legalization process.

One of those avenues could be Sen. Scott Tannas’s Bill S-268, which was introduced about a year ago but could take on new life. Through an amendment to Canada's Criminal Code, it aims “to provide that the governing body of a First Nation has exclusive authority to conduct and manage a lottery scheme on its reserve."

According to Sen. Brent Cotter, “This [bill] would extend this gaming jurisdiction to any First Nation that wishes to take up the opportunity.”

While not law just yet, the legislation does have merits. However, it doesn’t do much to help Canada’s Indigenous communities launch mobile sports betting and iGaming sites. It would just allow those communities to operate platforms on their lands.

Expect the fight to continue on various levels, although the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke has vowed to back off this particular one.

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