Path For Canada Sports Betting Could Become Clear At Hearing Next Week

Posted on March 19, 2021
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Written By on March 19, 2021

This is crunch time for single-game wagering in Canada.

On March 9, the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights held a hearing on Bill C-218, An Act to amend the Criminal Code. This is more widely known as the bill that would enable provinces to allow for single-game betting in Canada.

This hearing is one of the final steps before a third reading before Parliament, which would set in motion the bill for a final vote and then if successful would go to the Governor-General for Royal Assent before becoming law.

I’m going going, back back, to Canada Canada

For the better part of the last 10 years, efforts have been made in Canada to repeal a provision of the country’s Criminal Code that prohibits single-game sports betting. Despite the availability of parlay-style wagering on many sporting events across the country, the Criminal Code, via section 207 (4) (b), prohibits betting on single sporting events.

This bill would repeal that law. Much like the Supreme Court’s decision striking down PASPA in the United States, this move would then open the door for the provinces and territories of Canada to decide how to move forward with single-game betting.

While initially opposed by many of the major sports leagues in its earlier iteration in 2012 and 2013, this version of the bill has seen many former opponents come around, much as the professional sports leagues have largely embraced sports wagering in the United States.

The bill which had its second (of three) readings back in February is pressing along and is viewed by many as likely to pass, though just how legal sports betting would roll out remains less clear.

March hearing on Canada sports betting

The hearing on March 9 took place in person and over Zoom (it is available here). The meeting was broken into two separate blocks.

The first block featured testimony from:

  • Chris D. Lewis, the retired commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police
  • William (Bill) Ford, President of Racetracks of Canada Inc.
  • Jim Lawson and Christina Litz of Woodbine Entertainment Group

Mr. Lewis testified first, in his personal capacity, and noted that much like the decriminalization of marijuana, the decriminalization of single-game sports betting would bring the activity out of the shadows. He noted that the investigations into organized criminal operations are extremely resource-intensive.

Mr. Lewis concluded by noting that a regulated market is preferable to an illegal market and would better protect consumers.

How horse racing fits in

Bill Ford testified second and noted that over the last several months the horse racing industry has supported the legalization of fixed-odds single-game wagering.

Mr. Ford, however, argued that as currently drafted the bill could allow fixed-odds wagering on horse racing without supporting the industry. There is another bill that Mr. Ford noted would protect the industry and asked that preferable language in the second bill be added to protect the industry. Mr. Ford, additionally, asked that historical horse racing be legalized in Canada.

Lawson was joined by Christina Litz and testified about the importance of horse racing to Canada. Ms. Litz testified about horse racing’s impact on Canada and notes that the industry contributes more than 50,000 jobs and billions of dollars to the economy.

Ms. Litz argued that it is vitally important to consider the unintended consequences for the horse racing industry if it is not protected in legislation legalizing single-event fixed-odds wagering. Mr. Lawson piggybacked on Ms. Litz’s testimony arguing, like Mr. Ford, that Bill C-218 threatens to cannibalize the parimutuel industry without giving back to the industry.

Mr. Lawson articulated the need to adopt language protecting the horse racing industry.

The second block

The second block of witnesses represented:

  • The British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC)
  • Club Jockey du Quebec
  • Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario

What they said

Murielle Thomassin, the racetrack manager of the Trois Rivieres Racetrack, was the first to testify. Like the witnesses in the first block, Ms. Thomassin noted the importance of the parimutuel industry to the horse racing industry.

Stewart Groumoutis and Dr. Jamie Wiebe of the BCLC testified second and noted that this bill would modernize Canada’s laws and provide protections for Canadian consumers. Mr. Groumoutis noted that this legislation is “long overdue” and that, currently, BC residents are either crossing the border and going to Washington casinos or betting offshore.

Mr. Groumoutis noted that their plan is to roll out single-game sports betting is on the BCLC’s online gaming website PlayNow.com. He further noted that BCLC is at the forefront of monitoring and protecting player health, winning numerous awards for their monitoring of problem gambling behaviors.

Mr. Groumoutis concluded by stating that single-game sports betting is something Canada is ready for.

Last to testify were Sue Leslie and Ian Howard of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association of Ontario. Ms. Leslie argued that if fixed-odds horse racing wagers were allowed, it would break the industry.

Support for Canada sports betting legislation is there

There appears to be wide support for legalized single-game sports betting in Canada, though as currently drafted the bill appears problematic for the horse racing industry.

The vast majority of the witnesses on March 9 noted the devastating impact the bill would have on the industry. The fix of putting in protective language, however, appears relatively easy, though it is unclear what if any opposition there would be to the added language.

The briefs

In addition to the witness testimony on March 9, there was the release of written briefs that accompanied testimony from a hearing on February 25. The Responsible Gaming Council voiced support for requiring:

a robust regulatory framework that requires provincial regulators and operators to prioritize and integrate consumer protection within their strategy; including adherence and accountability to the highest standard of responsible gambling.

This would be accompanied by a continued commitment of the federal towards the prevention of addiction.

The Alberta Liquor and Cannabis Commission also voiced support of Bill C-218 and like the BCLC noted that it would provide new options for consumers on “Alberta’s only regulated online gambling website PlayAlberta.ca.”

What’s next

At the conclusion of the meeting it was agreed that there be a budget of $2,650 to study Bill C-218 and that at the next meeting on March 25, the committee undertakes a clause-by-clause evaluation of C-218 (the bill is only a few lines long).

Finally, the committee agreed that the Canadian Football League Players’ Association be invited to appear. Following the March 25 hearing, the timeline for single-game sports betting should become clearer.

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John Holden

John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.

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