I was introduced to gambling at a young age, because cards were a favourite pastime for families when I was a kid and poker was one of the games that my dad taught me to play. It was always fun on a weekend night to join in on a round of poker with the adults and try to win the stack of pennies. For a kid in the 60s, even a jackpot of 50 cents was a huge haul, as it was enough money to buy a weekend’s worth of candy. Clearly, I was pretty good at poker as I have the fillings in my teeth to prove it. However, along with one of my older brothers, I never went on to gamble like my parents and other four siblings, as I actually don’t care for it, even though gambling changed our family for the good, in a big way.
My mom was not a poker player, but she did love her bingo game and once a week she would head off to the Catholic church, religiously, to play bingo. One lucky night in 1967 she won the jackpot of $900, which enabled her to place a down payment on a house, something she never thought would happen, but because of a game of chance, her dream of owning a home was on its way.
This experience helped to reinforce the lure of gambling held by most of my family, which is apparently shared by a lot of other British Columbians, based on a BC Lottery Corporation fact sheet that states 75 per cent of adult British Columbians participated in a gambling activity in the past year.
Canada’s relationship with gambling has evolved from its early days of being deemed immoral and, therefore, illegal, to widespread acceptance today of all levels of mainstream gambling.
It’s interesting to note that gambling’s evolution in Canada has been primarily driven by non-profits and government’s response to them, since the public has traditionally been accepting of expanding gambling as long as the proceeds go to charities.
In 1925, because of extensive lobbying by agriculture fairs and exhibitions wanting to entertain the local town folk at the annual fair with games of chance, the government amended the Criminal Code to include “games of chance” and “games of mixed skill and chance.” Prior to this, the only activities that were permitted were “small scale raffles at bazaars held for any “charitable or religious object.”
Another significant change to Canada’s gaming laws came in 1969 on the heels of Expo 67, whereby the City of Montreal, facing huge debt from Expo 67 and projected shortfalls for the pending 1976 Olympic games, invited all Canadian citizens to register on the city’s tax roll for $2, which would then earn each registrant an entry into a monthly draw for 151 silver bars valued at $150,000.
The Attorney General of Quebec was forced to bring charges against the city, which was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada which then ruled the scheme was a prohibited lottery. In response, then-federal Liberal Justice Minister John Turner introduced an omnibus bill to amend the Criminal Code to permit gambling, which then set in motion the transition to gambling as it exists today, which is inclusive of the provinces now having control over lotteries and gambling.
Another shift that occurred was in the area of who controlled gaming and its revenue. In B.C., up until the early 90s, non-profits dominated gaming activities such as bingo, charitable casinos, break-open tickets and small-scale raffles, using the revenue to fund their charities that provided many of the social services and community supports that government was either downloading, or did not typically fund.
However, by the mid 90s, even though the non-profit sector had worked along side government during the expansion of gaming, facing considerable pressure to open up gaming to private sector interests, the government started to take control away from non-profits, eventually moving them almost completely away.
The government saw that by allowing the expansion of private sector interest in gambling, as well as introducing the “Community Chest” model of non-profit funding, whereby non-profits simply applied for a share of the gaming revenue, but no longer participated in the actual gaming operations or distribution of funds, government could have greater revenue and control over such. And considering casino revenue alone is the largest revenue stream for government, outside of taxes, its understandable why the government made the shift to going it alone.
People I know who like to gamble, view it as a self-imposed tax that they enjoy participating in – especially if they win – and their contributions assist with funding non-profits, so at that level, it appears there is no harm done.
However, there is an ugly side to gambling where harm does happen, which was highlighted in the recent report done by QC, Peter German titled: An Independent Review of Money Laundering in Lower Mainland Casinos, which he conducted for the Attorney General. Along with the other known social impacts that gambling presents, such as addiction, gambling is not without some tough issues.
And while I have always appreciated the fact that my mom loved her bingo game and was able to use her winnings to improve our living conditions and a lot of people enjoy trying to do the same, gambling and the reliance on the revenue by the government has grown so immensely that perhaps its time for government to heed its own slogan, “Know your limit and play within it,” and take the steps to ensure the harmful activities gambling has on our society do not outweigh the benefits. Especially since the biggest addiction to gambling revenues appears to be held by the government and we can be pretty certain it will be looking for more, as opposed to seeking treatment.
Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and citizen of the year.