Prairie high rollers
Two provinces want to expand gambling
The decisions raised the spectre of two Prairie capitals vying for the title of Las Vegas North. Last week, the Manitoba government announced that it will open a year-round casino on the seventh floor of Winnipeg’s historic Fort Garry Hotel. Three days later, legislative gambling fever surfaced in Regina when the Saskatchewan government said that it will introduce gaming legislation to allow government-run electronic games of chance and possibly slot machines. According to government sources, such legalized gambling could generate up to $35 million a year in revenues, and much of it would be earmarked for health care. But despite the respectable goals, critics reacted swiftly and bitterly, saying that gambling would take money from many people who can least afford it. Declared Maj. Gary Venables of the Salvation Army in Regina: “The end does not justify the means.”
But for provincial governments in need of money and reluctant to raise taxes, legislated gambling can provide a windfall. Manitoba has collected about $3.5 million a year from a small, government-run casino that operates 120 days a year in the Winnipeg Convention Centre but will be closed when the Fort Garry casino opens in October. Officials estimate that the new casino–which will also have gaming tables–will bring in as much as $10 million in revenue annually. British Columbia has also succumbed to the lure of sanctioned gambling–for three years the government-run B.C. Steamship Lines has had slot machines on two ships that travel between Victoria and Seattle. Their total of 160 machines collected $9 million in 1988 on only 140 days of operation–and then only during the two hours on each round trip when the ships were in Canadian waters.
For his part, Saskatchewan’s consumer and commercial affairs minister, Raymond Meiklejohn, defended the plan against the criticism from Venables and others. He said that millions of dollars leave the province for Nevada’s high-stakes gambling centres such as Las Vegas–a popular destination for westerners yearning to try their luck. Said Meiklejohn: “I think we could make a lot of revenue from it.”
But critics of legalized gambling such as William Livant, professor of psychology at the University of Regina, said that government-sanctioned gambling is often nothing more than a way to get more tax revenue out of the poor. Said Livant: “It is a very regressive form of taxation. It is taxing the poor to pay for themselves.” Others said that they opposed looser gambling laws on moral grounds. Last week, the Vancouver school board said that it would not become involved in casino nights to raise money for educational activities. Said trustee Harkirpal Sara: “What would the kids say when they look at how the money is raised? They are watching the behavior of adult society. As moral educators, we have to be careful.” And in Quebec, Liberal House Leader Michel Gratton said last week that the government will not give in to pressure to allow casinos in the province. Gratton claimed that they could attract those involved in organized crime.
In Saskatchewan, officials did not specify what kind of gambling centres would be created once the legislation has been passed. But one thing seemed a sure bet: whatever form liberalization takes, fewer Prairie high rollers would feel the compulsion to get on a plane to Las Vegas.