Then & Now: Gambling laws of Canada on land and online.
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.
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.
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!
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!
1497 – 1891: Gambling amid the Colonization of Canada
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.”
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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…
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
with five blackjack tables and stakes up to $5. Revenue reached
$25,000 in the ten days it was open.
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.
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…
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
victory for the horse racing industry was applauded in 1989 when
lawmakers passed Bill C-7, amending the code to legalize off-track
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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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