6 Oct

Comprehensive Timeline of Canadian Gambling Laws

Then & Now: Gambling Laws of Canada On Land and Online (2024)

Gambling Laws of Canada On Land & OnlineWhat 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.

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!

Latest Update: July 31, 2023

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 an accepted 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.

Goodbye England, Hello France…

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 cards 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 1820s, 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.

Tightening the reigns on illegal gambling…

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 a penalty of one year imprisonment and a fine not exceeding one thousand 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 on 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, 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.

We’ll call it a “voluntary tax”…

After 14 years of legislative debate, some local leaders were getting weary 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.

Enter stage left – Loto-Quebec

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 the 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 was much more than a way 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 April 15, 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”.

All aboard the new lottery bandwagon…

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 official 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.

The legal sports betting loophole…

As part of the ILC’s new lottery package, Sport Select was born. Sport Select was a legal loophole of sorts in which provincial governments 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,. Quebec promotes it under the French title, Pari Sportif.

The laws surrounding Canada’s original sports 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. 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.

And then there were two…

1986 saw the first two permanent-location casinos open 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 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.

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