The opening of Winnipeg’s Crystal Casino was just the beginning. While that 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 located in the Winnipeg area. The success of Crystal Casino struck a chord with Quebec officials too. They began construction on Casino de Montreal that year, and 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. they launched 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. Dozens of commercial, charitable and First Nations gaming facilities opened, attracting tourists and boosting economies. Soon enough, gaming became the number one way to drive wealth for municipalities. Hosting a casino means a share of the generated revenue – often in the 7- to 8-figure range – goes 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. It was a veritable free for all. There were no laws in place to permit, prohibit, or otherwise govern the operation of these websites. The Canadian government had no say in it, having given control of gambling regulation to each province. The provinces couldn’t do anything, either. They were granted only the right to control 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.
The government of British Columbia spent five long years watching their citizens partake in offshore iGaming privileges. They finally decided to step in utilizing the only legal resource they had access to. [Jump ahead – BC Plunges into iGaming]
2004 ALC Launches North America’s First Online Lottery
In 2004, the Atlantic Lottery Corp (ALC) made history by launching PlaySphere. It was the very first website to offer online lottery sales in North America. The website was open to all residents of Atlantic Canada, including the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. In time, the domain PlaySphere was rebranded to ALC.ca.
2004-2010 BC Plunges into iGaming, Inspires Quebec
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 physical lottery retailers were peddling at grocery stores and petrol stations all across the province.
Fast Forward 6 Years…
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 its 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 Black Friday; BC & Quebec Pool Poker Players
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. Among them, the world’s three largest poker domains we seized. PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker became infamous examples set in the DOJ’s historic Black Friday of Online Poker).
It was also 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 marks another ground-breaking moment for the industry. Their partnership marks the first time any two regulatory jurisdictions aligned to authorize peer-to-peer poker play.
2012-2013 Manitoba Wants In On The Action
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. Mimicking similar arrangements in Europe’s iGaming markets, the deal would permit access to BC’s PlayNow.com from players in Manitoba.
PlayNow.com launched in Manitoba in 2013. Before the year was out, it came to offer online lottery and casino games, live poker and live sports betting. This earmarked another industry first that occurred right here in Canada. One jurisdiction began piggybacking off the success of another by commissioning the use of its existing iGaming system.
This was a major catalyst in the consolidation of Manitoba’s regulatory oversight committees on liquor and gaming. They were combined under the umbrella of a new Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp (MLCC) the following year. The MLCC is responsible for the regulation of online gambling activities in the province.
2014 ALC Begins Push for Atlantic Canada Online Casino
It was around this time the ALC, regulator of lottery gaming for all the provinces of Atlantic Canada (NB, NL, NS, PEI) began feeling very left out of the iGaming loop. With very little support for any form of online gambling beyond its existing lottery sales, the ALC chose to publish an eye-opening report, detailing the “competitive reality” of the global market.
In short, international operators were getting all the action from AC iGamers. Neighbouring provinces were doing something about it, and they should too. Despite a great deal of research, facts and figures that went into the report, the argument fell on deaf ears.
2015 Fashionably Late, Ontario Launches Mobile Gambling
After watching and waiting for 10 long years, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) spent much of 2014 preparing for the launch of its own online gambling product, PlayOLG.ca. The website was promoted as a way to offer:
“Ontarians a controlled, government-regulated alternative to grey market online gambling websites.“
PlayOLG opened with a soft launch on December 4, 2014. Select Player Circle Rewards members were able to sign up and test out the new online casino. Then on January 8, 2015, PlayOLG went live to the public. What set Ontario’s iGaming portal apart from its provincial predecessors was its mobile-centric approach. PlayOLG was optimized for Android and iOS devices right out of the gate. This quickly led other provinces to begin updating their software.
Game variety was slim at the start. Players had access to Lotto Max and Lotto 6/49, and a handful of online casino games. These included slot machines, blackjack, baccarat, roulette, sic bo, and single-player poker. Since then, the number of games has increased dramatically. Hundreds more RNG and live casino games, online bingo, live poker, and sports betting were added.
2016-2018 Quebec’s IP Block Fails; ALC Push Continues
In 2016, Quebec drew the attention of the entire nation, and the ire of its iGaming community, by passing a bill (Bill 74) that would require internet service providers (ISPs) to enforce an IP Block against all known offshore gambling websites that accept Canadian players. The idea was simple – ring-fence its market to prevent competition with its home-grown EspaceJeux gambling portal. Making that law stick, however, was not so simple at all.
Challenges came up immediately. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Authority (CWTA) argued Quebec had no right to restrict internet access. Enforcement of the bill was postponed for two long years while the argument ascended to the Supreme Court.
On July 18, 2018, the law was ruled unconstitutional. This set a new bar for online gambling regulation in Canada. Provinces understood that, under federal law, international competition could not be eliminated.
Meanwhile, in Atlantic Canada…
The ALC spent 2016 trying (again) and failing (again) to convince the provincial leaders across Atlantic Canada that it was time to launch an online casino that would; 1) compete against international gambling websites; 2) protect players from the potential harms of dealing with offshore operators; and 3) provide $122 million in net revenue, including an $80 million net profit, over the first seven years.
ALC pitched that it could develop the iCasino throughout 2016, and have it ready for launch by early 2017. The response from New Brunswick, reciprocated by the rest of AC, was short and sweet. It stated simply that an “iCasino is not a priority at this time.”
2019 Ontario Budget Reveals Competitive iGaming Plan
In a shocking turn of events, Ontario’s 2019 budget includes the details of a plan to open its iGaming market to outside competition. It marked the first time any Canadian province showed interest in authorizing anything beyond a provincially-run operation.
The plan snowballed over the next two years. In 2020, the proposal expanded into a bill that would give regulatory authority to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). That agency was tasked with the creation of a subsidiary to monitor the regulation of iGaming operators authorized to compete in Ontario’s market. The subsidiary later became iGaming Ontario (iGO).
2020 Alberta and New Brunswick launch Online Casinos
This was the year the ALC finally got its wish – to an extent. The Crown Corporation received approval to launch an online casino for the residents of New Brunswick via ALC.ca. The portal went live in August 2020 with absolutely no fanfare. It was so quiet, in fact, 99% of the province had no idea it existed for the next few months. It wasn’t until January of 2021 that it made headline news.
Meanwhile in Alberta, the provincial gaming regulators were busy prepping for the October 2020 launch of PlayAlberta.ca. The website, under the watchful eye of Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC), offers Albertans the opportunity to bet on sports, casino, live dealer, lottery and instant win games.
2021 Canada Legalizes Single-Event Sports Betting
After years of failed attempts, Canada’s legislators finally wrangled enough backing to pass a bill legalizing wagers on single sports betting contests. It happened on August 27, 2021. Each and every province and territory took quick action to script local laws authorizing their casinos and/or retail sportsbooks to offer single-event bets. All provinces (except Saskatchewan) extended those rights to their online gambling portals, as well.
2022 Ontario gets Competitive; Sask joins BC for iGaming Launch
Ontario made history on April 4, 2022 with the launch of Canada’s first competitive commercial online gambling market. Open only to legal-age residents of the province, the market opened with 18 actively licenced operators. In two months, the number of authorized websites surpassed two dozen. More than two-thirds of those were catering in part, or in whole, to online sports bettors.
By October 2022, Ontario’s iGaming market had more than doubled in size to 40+ iGO licensed gambling sites. Some of the more prominent operators to join the market after day one include Betway, DraftKings, JackpotCity, Party Gaming, PokerStars, Royal Vegas, and WSOP. As of August 2023, iGO oversees 75 authorized gambling websites.
While all this was going on, more iGaming projects were brewing to the west.
In the first week of June 2022, the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Authority (SIGA) inked a partnership with BCLC to launch a segregated version of its PlayNow.com website in Saskatchewan, much like Manitoba did back in 2012. As part of the agreement, SIGA secured the First Nations’ five years of exclusivity operating in the local iGaming market before any competitor – private or commercial, provincial or otherwise – can compete in the province.
PlayNow Saskatchewan went live on November 3, 2022.