Ontario will launch its private online gaming and sports betting market on April 4, signifying a move away from the provincial monopolies that have persisted in Canada until now.
Around 30 operators are lining up to go live in what could quickly become one of the biggest markets in North America.
With a population of almost 15 million, it’s expected to generate CA$989 million (US$789 million) in gross revenue in its first year, and CA$1.86 billion (US$1.46 billion) by 2026, according to research firm Vixio GamblingCompliance.
But not everyone is licking their chops. The Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation (MSIFN) operates the Great Blue Heron Casino and Hotel northeast of Toronto. In a statement, the tribe called the provincial government’s Friday announcement of the launch date a “slap in the face” to Ontario’s First Nations, that “reduces… promises of reconciliation to a joke.”
The Nation said it would sue in a bid to block the market.
“The Ford government has recklessly ignored our concerns and has not offered any strategies to address the impact that their inadequate plan will have on our First Nation, our culture, and our ability to provide services to our community,” said MSIFN Chief Kelly LaRocca.
It is a real and significant threat. It will not stand. If the Ford government is not willing to address the harms caused by its decision, we will have to make them accountable, in an election year,” LaRocca continued.
The response underlines the tension that can exist between provincial governments and the First Nations when it comes to gaming.
Canadian tribal gaming is on a less sure footing than in the US. That’s because there is no federal legislation in Canada that enshrines indigenous gaming rights, like the US Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).
IGRA allows sovereign tribes to conduct Class II gaming (electronic bingo, card games), provided it is legal anywhere in the state. It also requires tribes to enter into a compact with the state government for Class III casino-style gaming. These compacts can provide the tribes with assurances against future state-sanctioned gambling expansion.
Canada’s Supreme Court has acknowledged the concept of tribal sovereignty, which encompasses the right to self-governance and for a tribe to use its sovereign land as it chooses, including for economic purposes. But the court has also ruled that neither gaming nor the regulation of gaming is an “integral part” of First Nations culture and is therefore not protected by federal law.
Unlike American tribes, Canadian First Nations can only conduct gaming under a provincial license and in accordance with provincial laws, which many see as an affront to their sovereignty.
Meanwhile, Canada’s federal government refuses to engage with the First Nations on jurisdictional matters related to casinos, because it has devolved the power to regulate gaming to provincial governments.
That doesn’t mean the tribes and provinces can’t work together when it comes to online gaming. Last September, the province of Saskatchewan announced it would launch an online casino and sports betting platform jointly with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, with revenues split 50/50 between the two parties.
The federation represents Saskatchewan’s 74 First Nations.