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Vote on single game sports betting in Canada was an affront to the public and to democracy




Instead of providing some relief to casinos and increasing revenues for the provinces who desperately need it, single-event sports betting in Canada was recently defeated in the House of Commons.

After vote, wagering on single sports is still illegal in Canada

Until the mid-1980s all forms of sports betting were illegal in Canada except for horse racing and private bets between individuals. That changed in 1985 when the federal government turned over the management of gambling to the provinces in exchange for $100 million each, which was used to fund the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. As part of that agreement the provinces were given the right to regulate and run casinos and lottery schemes and eventually all provinces decided to include sports betting as part of their portfolio as well, under the name Sports Select – a lottery type game that requires selecting a parlay of at least 2 games. The odds on Sports Select are terrible with a hold of 130% on single games and a total hold of 160% to 300% depending on the number of games played and the types of bets. Regardless of the lousy odds the sports lotteries have been fairly successful across Canada and some players have been able to make money by taking advantage of bad early odds or identifying injuries before the lottery corporations find out and adjust the odds. But wagering on single sports is still illegal as a result of a line in the Canadian Criminal Code and almost every analyst agrees that the introduction of single game sports betting would substantially increase the number of bettors and would provide a substantial increase in revenues to the provinces. The relevant section of the criminal code is as follows:

Section 207 4(b) states that illegal gambling includes:
"Bookmaking, pool selling or the making or recording of bets, including bets made through the agency of a pool or pari-mutuel system, on any race or fight, or on a single sport event or athletic contest."

To make single game sports betting legal the government would simply have to eliminate the words "single sport event or athletic contest" and not rewrite the criminal code in any other way. And there is a recent precedent for doing so.

Prior to the late 1990s dice games were prohibited under Canadian law in the same way single sport events or athletic contests were prohibited (i.e. one line in the code that listed dice games as illegal – apparently carried forward from English laws under Henry VIII) but that line was struck from the code in 1998 when the provinces, led by Ontario, asked the federal government to remove a section that outlawed dice games as that prohibition was a deterrent for American gamblers to come to border casinos as Americans love to play craps. The government agreed, saying that rule was antiquated plus they agreed to allow the provinces to decide how to run gambling. The Senate (an unelected group of patronage appointments) rubber stamped the government's decision and craps was introduced at Casino Windsor in 1999.

Canadian sports betting bill defeatedIn the early to mid-2000s casinos in Canada thrived since they had no direct U.S. competition, but revenues slowed down after the United States relaxed their rules on casinos and border cities like Detroit, Niagara Falls New York and Seattle introduced their own casinos. Consequently, Joe Cromartin, a Member of Parliament for Windsor introduced a private member's bill in the House of Commons in 2010 to amend the criminal code that would remove the rule requiring wagering on multiple sports. Cromartin hoped that single game sports betting with fair odds would lure Americans living in northern states back to Canadian casinos since at the time it was evident that PASPA would never allow for single game sports betting in the United States outside of Nevada. Private member's bills generally go nowhere, but this bill called C-290 passed in 2012 with support by all parties. Under the rules of Parliament once a bill passes in the House of Commons it is sent to the Senate for approval, at which point it becomes a law. While the Senate has the right to block a bill, they rarely do and have never blocked any bill that passed with all party support. Don't forget they are not elected and hence are not democratically representative of the Canadian public.

Unfortunately for Canadians the Senate got a bee in their bonnet around that time and chose to use this bill as a way to make a statement and also make themselves appear more relevant than they truly are.

Some Senators argued that the bill had to be defeated because it was passed without any real discussion or debate in the House before being affirmed, but others in the House pointed out that it didn't need any real discussion because sports betting was already taking place and the bill didn't introduce anything new, since the section of the criminal code still exists. It simply removes a sentence from one paragraph the same way dice were eliminated about 15 years earlier. But the Senate was comprised of many sports dignitaries such as Jacques Demers, Frank Mahovlich and Nancy Greene who felt beholden to their prior leagues that opposed sports betting and decided to use the tired old argument that single game sports betting could lead to match fixing and corruption and somehow would create more problem gambling.

Others weren't so convinced.

Bob Runciman, a Senator who approved the bill noted that it wasn't the Senate's job to overrule the House and that there was no proof that single game sports betting would increase the risk of match fixing. In fact, Runciman noted that keeping the law as is would do the opposite, since it forces bettors to deal with underground bookmakers or offshore bookmakers that can't be regulated. And other insiders were even more skeptical noting that the Senate was reeling as a result of major spending scandals by some of its key members and they were looking for a way to deflect attention to their scandals. This was an attempt to make themselves appear more important to the public and the House since Prime Minister Stephen Harper was considering the possibility of eliminating the Senate or at least making them elected positions rather than appointments. Consequently, the majority of Senators stalled the bill in 2014 and it was never heard from again before the next federal election when Justin Trudeau and the Liberals beat the incumbent Conservative Party.

"By defeating the law nothing will change and that's not good for anyone."

Brian Masse, an MP for Windsor West, who was also looking out for the interests of the Windsor Casino, reintroduced the bill as C-221, The Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act and it went to a vote of the House of Commons where last week it was defeated by a 155-133 margin. There was no real reason given by House members as to why the bill was defeated, other than to say they weren't considering private member's bills at the current time, but government insiders told me that many of the newly elected Liberal MP voted against it either as a favor to their Senate colleagues or because they belong to a religion whose ideology opposes gambling and thus voted it down without any discussion or consideration regarding the consequences of that decision. That vote, and more so the snub by the Senate in 2014, were an affront to both democracy and to the best interests of the Canadian public.

The Canadian public wants to be able to bet.

The most recent Gallup poll showed that almost 80% of Canadians supported expanded gambling and approved of the government taking action to ensure that happens. Consequently, this vote ignores the public's desires and the House voted it down simply to appease the new government's personal feelings. And in reality it should never have come this far because the Senate had no business being involved in the first place. The Senate stalling the bill in 2004 is the equivalence of a CEO and senior management of a company who were appointed by shareholders of the company having a decision they made for the future of the company vetoed by the cleaning staff who were appointed to that position by former CEOs as a personal favor, but the cleaning staff are worried they may be fired because a few have been caught stealing supplies. Only democratically elected officials should be able to make decisions for the general public and the Senate is not. And while some will point to the fact that the current House of Commons members that defeated the bill were democratically elected it doesn't change the fact that the former all-party support of the previous government was ignored in favor of this one. In a way it's very reminiscent of U.S. politics where the Republicans continue to stall bills introduced by President Obama and have stalled the appointment of the new U.S. Supreme Court judge in hopes that the Democrats will lose this election and the stall tactics will allow them to get their way in the end. It's childish, undemocratic and sets a dangerous precedent. Does this mean that if the Senate doesn't like a bill passed in the House in Canada they can just block it in hopes that a new government will come in? And more importantly does it mean that every time a new government is elected they can reintroduce old bills they don't like and vote it down or rewrite the laws of the previous governments?

How in the world will anything get done?

This was not only an undemocratic decision but it was a bad decision by the current House. By defeating the law nothing will change and that's not good for anyone. The government already ruled that provinces can't force ISPs to block gambling sites, after Quebec tried to do so, and the police have had no success in shutting down illegal bookmaking operations. Canadians will continue to bet on sports but instead of providing some relief to casinos and increasing revenues for the provinces who desperately need it for health care, education and infrastructure the money instead will stay in the hands of mobsters or offshore companies who don't pay taxes. The defeat of the single games sports betting bill was a sad day for Canada, regardless of whether you support gambling or not.

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