Canada’s sports betting hopes will come to a critical juncture later this month when its legislature votes on C-221, a bill seeking to amend the national criminal code to allow for single-game wagering.
According to sources in the legislature, the House of Commons is scheduled on Sept. 21 to determine whether to send the bill to the Committee on Justice and Human Rights for further deliberation, or reject the bill.
If C-221 is successfully referred, it could stand a decent chance of passing out of the House altogether and moving on to the Senate, which has blocked prior attempts to legalize sports wagering.
If the bill is not referred to the Justice committee, however, it would effectively die and likely waylay future sports betting legalization efforts for several years to come.
C-221 would amend national criminal code
MP Brian Masse, a member of the New Democratic Party representing Windsor West, Ont., introduced C-221, also referred to as the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, earlier this year.
The bill summary reads:
“This enactment repeals paragraph 207(4)(b) of the Criminal Code to make it lawful for the government of a province, or a person or entity licensed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council of that province, to conduct and manage a lottery scheme in the province that involves betting on a race or fight or on a single sport event or athletic contest.”
C-221 was submitted as a private member’s bill, meaning it was not introduced by a cabinet minister and is separate from the government’s legislative agenda.
Following the election of liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau last year, the Parliamentary Secretary to The Minister For Justice, MP Sean Casey, surprised some by announcing that Trudeau’s government would not support the bill.
The positioning represented an about-face from the liberal party. It was Canada’s opposition party before gaining a majority in 2015, and it supported a previous incarnation of the bill, C-290, that dates back to 2011. MP Casey had formerly come out in support of C-290 as well.
C-221 continues the efforts of C-290
In many ways, Masse inherited the fight for legal sports betting from his friend and former colleague, ex-NDP MP Joe Comartin.
Comartin spearheaded C-290, which passed the House of Commons with relative ease, but floundered in the Senate during the three-year period before then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper dissolved parliament in 2013.
At that point, unsettled legislative efforts including Comartin’s effectively “reset,” and the process of introducing and debating such a bill went back to square one.
By parliamentary rule, a bill cannot be re-introduced before a period of five years has expired. Because of this, if September’s committee vote fails, it does not appear likely that Canadian parliament would see another sports betting bill introduced until at least 2021.
While an MP could pursue another legislative avenue by which to provide a legal, regulated framework for sports betting, sources close to the legalization efforts in Canada say that amending the nation’s criminal code (as C-221 seeks to do) is by far the most viable way forward.
Masse himself noted during legislative testimony in June that “this is an opportunity we will not have again.”
The NBA changed its stance on Canadian sports betting
American professional sports leagues — including the NBA, MLB, and NHL — submitted briefs opposing C-290, the aims of which were identical to that of the present day bill.
According to ESPN, however, the NBA withdrew its opposition to C-290 bill in July 2015. A filing by the league explained its about-face as being consistent with its changing stance on sports wagering.
Notably, the NBA did not remove its name from the list of plaintiffs opposed to the state of New Jersey sports betting efforts to effectively allow some forms of wagering by repealing portions of its gambling prohibitions.
Proponents cite economic benefits, greater transparency
The bill has since undergone two periods of discussion in the House, most recently this past June, during which several members voiced their support for the bill.
NDP MP Tracey Ramsey argued that C-221’s passage would benefit regional tourism industries. She said Canadians “have spent around $500 million annually betting on sports legally” for the past 10 years.
Fellow NDP MP Kennedy Stewart argued sports betting would happen regardless of whether it was legalized, and called for bringing the activity into the light in order to allow for greater transparency.
Multiple NDP officials cited estimates during testimony that put Canada’s illegal sports betting handle between $14 and $15 billion, roughly 10 percent of what the American Gaming Association estimates the illegal US sports betting handle to be.
Masse himself has said legalization would help divert money from organized crime and help create jobs, including at casinos such as the Caesars Windsor.
Opponents cite problem gambling concerns, organized crime ties
Former Toronto police chief and current Liberal MP Bill Blair, on the other hand, spoke against the bill in June. He emphasized that the dangers of potentially exacerbating problem gambling in Canada outweighed the bill’s potential economic benefits.
“While I appreciate the economic advantages that the proposed reform could bring about, the big concern I have to share is the impact that this proposed change could have on individuals and families, the social costs of gaming,” Blair said.
“I believe that if Bill C-221 were to pass, the costs to the provinces and territories would inevitably increase. More important, the cost to individuals, families, and society would increase.”
MP Blair also argued that the bill’s passage would not dissuade sports bettors from continuing to bet illegally due to illegal bookmakers’ tendency to extend generous credit and take a lower rake than books.
Senate historically opposed to sports betting
Historically, parliamentary opposition to single-game sports betting was led in part by Conservative Senator Vern White.
“If we followed the line of thinking of Brian Masse,” Sen. White told the CBC in 2015, “we would legalize cocaine and heroin too. Organized crime is doing it, so why don’t we do it too?”
According to sources close to the C-290 legislative process, several in the Senate were concerned at how quickly and easily C-290 passed the House, seemingly without any deliberation.
A thorough debate and explanation of the bill’s ramifications in the House’s Justice Committee, therefore, could actually be beneficial to C-221’s passage as opposed to a potential bureaucratic roadblock.
Bill passage could draw US bettors to Canada
Were C-221 eventually approved by the legislature, its passage may result in the poaching of US customers by Canadian casinos.
It is possible customers who frequent the MGM Grand Detroit or the MotorCity Casino, for example, may be incentivized to take their business from Detroit directly over the border to neighboring Windsor if Canadian casinos offered an additional sports betting menu.
Michigan casinos currently do not offer sports betting, although state representatives there have introduced sports betting bills as recently as last fall.
Canada does currently offer one form of sports betting: Parlay card betting (two or more connected bets on different game outcomes), which is offered exclusively through provincial lottery corporations.
If passed, C-221 would not mandate provinces with a wagering scheme in place offering single-game betting as well. Instead, it would merely give all provinces the option of offering single-game betting.
Whether such an eventuality would have any effect on US politicians or other stakeholders potentially responsible for legalizing sports betting, however, remains unclear.
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