2 Apr

Comprehensive Timeline of Canadian Gambling Laws

Then & Now: Gambling laws of Canada on land and online.

Gambling Laws of Canada On Land & Online

What is gambling? It is the act of placing a bet. A bet is placed when an individual risks something of value on the outcome of something that hasn’t happened yet in hopes of winning an equal or larger thing of value in return. A pull of the slot machine lever; a hand of blackjack; a friendly wager on who will win the evening’s baseball or hockey game. These are all common forms of gambling in Canada and the rest of the world.

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The legality of gambling hasn’t always been so liberal as it is now. Then again, Canadian gambling laws aren’t all that liberal when compared to some of the world’s major countries.

In the following passages, we will detail a complete and thorough history of the laws surrounding gambling in the Great White North, from the days of the earliest settlers, right up to the present day legislation. The aim is to become the most comprehensive database for Canadian betting laws. It’s going to take us some time to get this page fully up to date, but bear with us – with regular updates, we will soon get there!

Please use the following tags to jump to the historical timeline you wish to know more about, or scroll below to start at the top (a few centuries ago) and work your way down (to present day). Happy learning!

Gambling Laws of Canada: A Comprehensive Timeline

1497 – 1891: Gambling amid the Colonization of Canada

For thousands upon thousands of years, Canada was home only to Native tribes. They enjoyed gambling as much as any indigenous tribe of antiquated times. No laws were in place to stop or limit them. It was simply accepted an practice. A part of their culture – a culture that has been well preserved, and can still be observed today among the First Nations of Canada.

Somewhere around 990-1050, Vikings came to Greenland and Iceland, creating a small settlement on the tip of Newfoundland. But still, there were no established laws of the land. That didn’t occur until John Cabot arrived in 1497, claiming the territory for England.

From that moment, assuming that Canada was technically under British rule, gambling was illegal among working class citizens, except during the extended Christmas holiday. For twelve days, commoners were allowed to play cards, per the 1496 declaration of King Henry VII. Otherwise, legally speaking, Canada was subject to England’s 1495 Statue of the Realm, which stated:

“…that no man play at dice, cards, tables, closh, handout, nor at none other game whereby they shall waste their money or cause debates to arise by the same. And if any so be found playing at any of these games that for the first time he or they shall be committed to ward, there to remain eight days and to lose all such money as they or any of them play for; be one half to the provost of that marshal, and the other half to him that so findith them playing.”

However, England never made any attempts to settle the land, seeking primarily a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Without any settlements, no laws could or would be enforced.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed to Canada, where he planted a cross in the Gaspé Peninsula, symbolizing his claiming of the land for France. The next summer, he named it “Canada”. Under the ownership of King Francis I, gambling was once more (technically) illegal in the region. French law forbade gambling by anyone below the rank of knight (1190), followed by a prohibition on gambling with cards (1377). Laws were later amended to forbid working class citizens from gambling on card on working days (1399).

Cartier and fellow French explorers spent the next two centuries settling the New France, solidifying Cartier’s declaration of “Canada” with Cartographers throughout the 16th century. But when no more French came, English and Scottish migration grew. By 1750, the French were far outnumbered, resulting in the Seven Years’ War that saw England take over the rule of Canada by way of the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

For law abiding citizens with a knack for wagering, this was great news. As of 1660, King Charles II declared gambling legal for all citizens, not just those of nobility. Being under English rule, such laws extended to Canada as well. This lasted right up until…

1892 – 1953: The Glory Days of Horse Race Betting

The colonies of Canada were confederated in 1867, at which point the nation’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, declared his commitment to extricate Canada from the suffocating grip of English law. To that end, he helped script the Canadian Constitution of 1867, which gave Canada the right to codify its own criminal laws. An initial set of statutes was introduced in 1869 to cover common offenses, but it wasn’t until July 9, 1892 that the new government enacted a complete Criminal Code of Canada.

The Criminal Code decreed that all gambling was illegal except for charitable lottery raffles of $50 or less, carnival games of chance held at agricultural fairs, and betting on horse races between individuals at legal racetracks.

Horse race betting was already going on in Canada before any tracks became officially legalized. The humble history of Canada’s first formal racetrack, Fredericton Raceway, began in May of 1816 with the town’s first recorded meet. It started at a large pine tree along Phyllis Creek, and ended at Clark’s Corner. A few years later, races were moved to a large field south of George Street and west of York Street. In the 1820’s, this area of land became known as Fredericton Race Course.

Many other racetracks and turf clubs were formed over the 19th century, but when the Criminal Code came along, the ignominious side of the sport was exposed. Slippery bookmakers were shortening the odds in their favor and using gruff tactics to ensure the prompt payments. That issue would be dealt with in 1910, but first…

On July 18, 1900, an amendment to the Criminal Code expanded the eligibility of lottery raffles of up to $50 to be hosted at bazaars by charities and religious organizations.

Over the next decade, the codification was expanded to provide more precise definitions for gambling terms like “betting house”, “common betting house”, “disorderly house”, “gaming house”, “keeper”, and other indictable offenses. Anyone found guilty of assisting in “betting and pool selling” under these definitions faced penalty of one year imprisonment and a fine not exceeding one thousands dollars.

May 4, 1910, was a remarkable day in the history of Canada’s horse racing industry. On this day, an amendment to the Criminal Code outlawed bookmakers and introduced pari-mutuel betting to the horse racing industry. Pari-mutuel betting was to be conducted by the facility hosting the race, allowing prizes to be awarded to winners from a pool of money made up of all wagers, after the host of the races collects a portion as profit.

This amendment also relaxed charitable gambling laws further, making it legal to host temporary games of chance, so long as the profits were designated for a charitable or religious cause, or the games were being hosted at an agricultural fair.

Horse race betting laws were extended in July 1920, supporting the establishment of a pari-mutuel betting system under the operational guidance of the Federal Minister of Agriculture. In 1922, the Criminal Code extended its prohibition against dice games to include any, “Dice Game, Shell Game, punchboard, coin table, wheel of fortune.”

Other minor amendments in terminology were made over the next three decades, including one interesting alteration in 1938 that made it legal to operate gambling games at a bona fide social club, so long as the clubs did not exact any portion of the stakes. Otherwise, nothing else major occurred in Canadian gambling laws until…

1954 – 1984: Legal lottery and casino games come to Canada

In 1954, the House of Commons began holding significant debates in the timeline of Canada’s gambling laws. It’s worth noting that this was the last time, prior to the turn of the millennium, that any public debate was held on the subject of gambling legislation in Canada. All relative amendments thereafter have been passed in the absence of public consensus.

During these meetings, which took place in the Special Committee between 1954-55, it was decided that, in an effort to raise more money for national and local governments, legal lotteries were something they needed to take a much more serious look at. It was also decided that three card monte should be added to the ever-growing list of illegal games of chance.

After 14 years of legislative debate, some local leaders were getting wary of the wait for lottery authorization. In 1968, Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau took it upon himself to introduce a “voluntary tax” of $2. Those who chose to pay the tax received a chance to win a prize of $150,000 in silver. The Mayor conducted this drawing several times before the Canadian government stepped in, declared it illegal, and shut it down.

In June 1969, another update to the Criminal Code granted federal and provincial rights to organize and conduct lotteries, while expanding charitable gambling under provincial licenses to include the operation of slot machines.

Before the year was out, the first casino-style games were up and running, but they weren’t slot machines. Under the rules of agricultural fairs, the Edmonton Fairgrounds in Alberta, Canada opened a mini-casino called “Klondike Village”, complete with five blackjack tables and stakes up to $5. Revenue reached $25,000 in the ten days it was open.

Propagation of lotteries began in 1970 with the launch of Loto-Quebec. In March of that year, the province modeled its first games after Mayor Drapeau’s previous attempt, selling $2 tickets for a chance to win a $150,000 prize. But there was a problem. None could seem to agree on who should have supreme authority over the lotteries.

Direct conflict over allocation of responsibilities began in 1973, and lasted for more than 15 years before Canada decided to give complete authorization to the provincial governments. But first, there was a not-so-simple matter of the Olympic Games coming to town…

Step back in time a moment to May of 1970, when Canada was shocked to learn that Montreal had been awarded the rights to host the nation’s first Summer Olympic Games in 1976. The entire nation was ecstatic! But as the novelty of winning the right wore off, Quebec quickly realized there wasn’t nearly enough money to host such an epic sporting event. This moment in history has everything to do with why Canada promotes lotteries in the first place.

Loto-Quebec wasn’t just launched to raise money for the province. It was part of a forward-looking campaign to organize something that could eventually help fund the Olympic Games. In 1974, the Montreal Olympic Lottery was born. On April15, 1974, the first drawing was held. Tickets were sold for $10 a piece, and the grand prize was $1,000,000 in non-taxable cash, making it the largest lottery prize in the world to date. Nine women, all hailing from Quebec City, shared the prize as Quebec raised $15 million to fund the construction of an Olympic Stadium, henceforth nicknamed “The Big O”.

Following the immense success of that lottery scheme, the Western Canada Lottery Corporation was formed in June 1974, providing provincial lottery services for Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Ontario followed suit in 1975, launching the first bi-weekly lottery drawing, Wintario, in February, and establishing the Ontario Lottery Corporation in April.

Later that same year, the first officially legal and temporary casino was set up by a children’s non-profit summer camp in Alberta. The games ran for four days. With hopes of establishing something more permanent and profitable for the province, Alberta founded Canada’s first gaming regulatory body in 1976.

In August that year, the Canadian lottery reached a milestone when the five provincial organizations – Atlantic Lottery Corp (ALC, established in December of that year), Loto-Quebec, Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corp (OLG), Western Canada Lottery Corp (WCLC), and British Columbia teamed up to launch the Interprovincial Lottery Corporation (ILC). Through the ILC, all provinces were able to present national lottery games to players all over the country. They called it the “Provincial Lottery”, selling $5 tickets to the first $1 million prize draw held on October 31, 1976. Quebec and the Maritime provinces would later join the ILC in 1978.

As part of the ILC’s new lottery package, Sport Select was born. Sport Select was a legal loophole of sorts in which provincial government’s were able to use a lottery-style scheme to offer sports betting. Each province that adopted Sport Select gave it a different name. British Columbia called it Sport Action, Ontario offers it as Pro-Line, while Quebec promotes it under the French title, Pari sportif.

The laws surrounding Canada’s original sport lottery provided parlay wagers, wherein punters must select between 2 and 6 picks to win (BC and Atlantic Canada), or 3 to 6 picks to win (Quebec, Ontario, Western Canada). All picks had to be correct in or to win, presenting less favorable odds compared to the legal sports betting activities in most other parts of the world.

In 1982, all eyes turned back to the horse racing industry as the federal government passed Bill C-117. That measure amended the Criminal Code to permit pari-mutuel inter-track betting and paved a legal pathway for telephone account betting.

1985 – 1989: Provinces win the lottery, first casinos come to town

1985 was a huge year for Canadian lottery organizers. The British Columbia Lottery Corp was formed in April 1985, and by September, the immensely popular Lotto 6/49 was expanded to run twice weekly. Then in December, Canada’s federal government finally ended the 16-year squabble over who had ultimate say in organizing the nation’s lotteries.

An amendment to the code stripped the federal government of any former rights to establish or control lotteries. That power was given exclusively to the provinces. From then onward, each province has been able to authorize and regulate its own private lotteries, and work in tandem with other provinces to promote inter-provincial and/or nationwide lotteries.

In exchange, the provinces agreed to deliver annual payments of $18 million to the Canadian government. That proved to be no problem as the nation’s legalized lotteries tallied up a collective revenue stream of $2.7 billion.

As part of the same amendment, provinces were given regulatory control over certain casino-style games, including slot machines and other video-based gaming devices. Also in October of 1985, the horse race betting industry received a boost when Canadians were given the right to wager on foreign horse races via telephone betting.

1986 saw the first two permanent-location casinos opened in Canada. Both were built by Great Canadian Gaming – one in Vancouver and another on Vancouver Island – and served as charitable gaming facilities. The first was The Casino at Holiday Inn on Broadway, which opened its doors on February 21, 1986. The second, Nanaimo Casino, opened the following summer.

From 1987 onward, more charity-organized casinos began popping up in most major cities across the country. The foray into ferry gambling also took place that year aboard a pair of ships ferrying passengers between Victoria, B.C. and Seattle, Washington.

Another victory for the horse racing industry was applauded in 1989 when lawmakers passed Bill C-7, amending the code to legalize off-track betting.

Canada’s gambling history took a great leap into modern-day services on December 29, 1989. That was the day the very first permanent, provincially operated commercial casino welcomed guests onto its gaming floor. It was called Crystal Casino, located on the 7th floor of the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It remained open until May 22, 1997.

1990-1997: Commercial, charitable and tribal casino explosion

The opening of Winnipeg’s Crystal Casino was just the beginning. While that’s facility’s success was booming, the Manitoban government was working on the construction of two full-feature gambling establishments. McPhillip Street Station Casino and Club Regent Casino both opened in 1993; both also located in the Winnipeg area. The success of Crystal Casino struck a chord with Quebec officials too, who began construction on Casino de Montreal that year, also opening to the public in 1993.

By 1994, Ontario had joined the casino race with the opening of Caesars Windsor. That was also the year the First Nations tribes joined the gambling revenue race, launching their first operation, Golden Eagle, in Kenora, Ontario in 1994.

Nova Scotia began hosting Casino Halifax and Casino Sydney in 1995. Not to be outdone, Saskatchewan invited guests to their own Casino Regina in 1996. The First Nations launched 5 more casinos that year, 4 in Saskatchewan and another in Ontario.

The Canadian casino trend has continued throughout the last few decades, with dozens of commercial, charitable and First Nations gaming facilities seeking to attract tourists and boost the economy. It soon became the number one way to drive wealth for municipalities. Hosting a casino pays a sharing of the generated revenue – often in the 7- to 8-figure range – to each casino’s respective community.

1998-2003: The rise of online gambling in Canada

The world’s very first online gambling sites began appearing in the mid to late 1990s. With no laws in place to permit, prohibit, or otherwise govern the operation of these websites, it was a veritable free-for-all. The Canadian government had no say in it, having given control of gambling regulation to each province. The provinces couldn’t do anything, either, having only been given legal rights over gambling operations that occur within their respective borders.

Aside from server location, online casinos have no physical presence. Therefore, unless their servers are located on Canadian soil, local governments have no authority to say whether they can or cannot accept Canadian players; nor are they within their rights to prohibit or otherwise prevent Canadian players from accessing those websites.

This situation has been ongoing for the last two decades and counting. International operators, barring a physical (server / office) presence in Canada, are not expressly legal, but not illegal either. They fall into what the iGaming industry has universally dubbed a “grey area” of the law. However, this applies only to international online gambling sites.

After about 5 years of watching their citizens partake in offshore iGaming privileges, the government of British Columbia finally decided to step in, utilizing the only legal resource they had access to.

2004-2010: BC plunges into iGaming regulation, inspires Quebec to follow

Applying the exact same verbiage of Canada’s federal gambling guidelines to internet-based gaming technology – wherein any game that involves wagering something of value on the outcome of a contest that involves chance (with or without an element of skill) is defined as a “lottery scheme” – British Columbia broke the mold by becoming one of the first governments in the world to officially legalize certain online gambling activities.

BC’s regulatory framework gave the British Columbia Lottery Corp (BCLC) the authority to launch internet-based versions of any gambling game that qualifies as a lottery scheme. This included traditional number-based lottery drawings, scratch cards, bingo games, poker games, and most casino games, like slot machines, blackjack, roulette, baccarat, video poker and more.

The BCLC chose to start small, providing access to online number and sports lotteries via PlayNow.com in 2004. These were the same games their physical lottery retailers were peddling at grocery stores and petrol stations all across the province.

It wasn’t until 2010 that BCLC decided to take the real plunge into online casino gaming, making British Columbia, Canada the first legally authorized and regulated internet casino gaming jurisdiction in all of North America.

At the same time, Quebec was racing to get their own online gambling website to market. On December 1, 2010, Espacejeux.com was launched, becoming the second licensed and regulated online casino on the continent.

2011-2015: Canada catches first whiff of regulated online poker with cross-border player pooling

2011 was a major year for online poker; not just in Canada, but all of North America. It was the year the US Department of Justice tackled illegal poker sites PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker in the infamous Black Friday of Online Poker, and the year B.C. became the first Canadian province to launch regulated online poker.

To ensure success, BCLC teamed up with Loto-Quebec in a cross-border player sharing campaign that saw both provinces launch internet poker on their respective iGaming websites. It was another ground-breaking moment for the industry, marking the first partnership between any two regulatory jurisdictions for authorized peer-to-peer poker play.

By 2012, Manitoba was eager to share in the action, but not so eager to do any of the handiwork. Manitoba’s provincial gaming regulators negotiated a website, software and player sharing deal with BCLC that permits access to PlayNow.com from players within the province – another industry first that occurred right here in Canada.

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