Ontario to be Canada’s acid test for online gambling

Canadian gambling faces its ‘summer of change’ as industry attention is fixed on the Federal Senate granting federal approval of Bill C-218  –  ‘The Safe & Regulated Sports Act’.

Simple in its design, Bill C-218 seeks to untwine gambling from being governed by Canada’s Criminal Code, allowing the nation’s ten provinces to independently regulate their markets, should they choose to.

Quick to strike, the government of Ontario launched its igaming consultation last April aiming to establish the foundations for Canada’s most populous province to launch its first online gambling framework.

“We are mixing the cement, but nothing has been settled,” commented Stan Cho MPP for Willowdale and executive for Ontario’s Ministry of Finance, a policy stakeholder of Ontario’s planned igaming regime.

Speaking on a panel during the SBC Digital North America online conference, Cho added: “We are watching C-218 senate developments very closely, as sports betting will be an essential component to Ontario’s market offering.

“The bill will change federal codes to legalise single sports betting, but more importantly it will help Ontario capture that gray market activity – sports betting is a crucial offering for any legal gambling regime.”

Cho remarked that Ontario’s Treasury had been bombarded with ‘market estimates ranging from $500 million to $1 billion per year’ –  but maintained that focus was on establishing a level playing field for business, promoting safer gambling rules and securing a legislative guarantee to launch Canada’s first regulated marketplace.

Ron Segev, Founding Partner of North American gambling law firm Segev LLP, reminded the panel that Canada had previously witnessed its online gambling transition during the birth of the sector in the 90s. Yet, incumbents of the once burgeoning digital sector had been let down by Canada’s criminal codes.

“The bigger opportunity for us is to finally reverse that brain drain,” Segev claimed.

“In 96/97 when online gambling started to explode, the major innovator for the industry was Canada. Unfortunately, we did not have the regulatory infrastructure to support a nascent industry, so the best and brightest had to leave.

“That was a real loss for Canada, what should have been a thriving industry was governed by a criminal code regime, resulting in a real economic loss for the country.”

The country’s loss was further compounded by the rise of a black market actively targeting national consumers and offering no safety net against problem gambling disorders.

Shelley White, CEO of Canada’s Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), emphasised that Ontario’s planned regime offered the opportunity to fix past discrepancies: “Ontario government have always held a strong commitment for consumer protections, and that is good news for everybody involved. 

“We anticipate that there will be a lot of new operators joining the market, and my concern is that regulators handle RG duties right from the top”.

White has advised policymakers to focus on a  ‘public health first approach’ to launching Ontario’s regime, which is fundamentally different to what has been witnessed across North American jurisdictions.

She said: “We want Ontario to have the best RG training for all its gambling workforce. And a safe market should include clear promotion of safer gambling tools and self-exclusion, with operators forced to inform customers of game risks and what the odds are.”

Expectations are high for how Ontario will establish its online gambling laws, in which long term advocate Paul Burns, President of Canadian Gambling Association (CGA) advised caution.

Questioned on how Ontario would enforce rules to preserve its market value, acting as Canada’s first regime, Burn’s remarked that there would be ‘many nuances with regards to how provinces choose to form their laws’.

“Regulators need to ensure that they are not creating oversight for the sake of oversight… and this is often misunderstood in Canada. There will be a number of interpretations across the country used by provincial governments.”

He also warned: “On enforcement, we need to have a grounded perspective. Ontario can develop a robust framework, but it must be mentioned that Ontario cannot serve as Canada’s cop for policing regulations.” 

Finishing the panel’s proceedings, Stan Cho was placed on the spot, and asked the critical question of timeframes with regards to Ontario launching its anticipated regime. Probed on a December launch, Cho replied: “I think it is feasible, but I’m speaking from a building made from Canadian oak… so we can knock on wood for a Christmas launch.”   

The Industry experts were speaking on the Regulatory Track, sponsored by IGT Play Sports, at SBC Digital North America, which runs from 9-10 June 2021. Get your free ticket by registering at https://sbcevents.com/sbc-digital-north-america/