Amid the flashing lights and noisy din of the local casino, Andrew* was on his best behaviour. Playing alongside his partner or other friends, he didn’t wager enough to draw their attention or concern.
In his hometown, one of the many smaller Canadian cities with a gaming centre, he felt it would be easy for others to notice if he gambled with abandon. But in private moments, when it was just him and the computer screen, “it was out of control,” he says.
Online blackjack was his favourite game. The ability to gamble as several players at once allowed him to hasten the highs and breeze past the lows. “It would go really fast, and you could obviously get through a lot of money in a short period,” he says. Occasionally he would bet the entire night away, freshen up and go to work the next morning without sleeping.
Within two years, Andrew estimates he lost nearly $100,000 gambling — including a five-figure sum he embezzled from his employer. Though this act went unnoticed for a few years, the guilt took mental and physical tolls on him. He contemplated suicide but eventually reached out for help, confessed what happened and started abstaining from gambling instead.
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More than a decade later, Andrew finds it challenging to escape the growing wave of online gambling venues in Canada. The back-door nature of the sites he used to play was evident from his credit card statements — charges to far-flung places like the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar where offshore gaming licences were easily obtained. But online gaming is no longer only for the grey market. Today there are legal, regulated options that provincial governments are using as revenue generators.
Before 2021, single-sports betting was illegal in Canada. Gamblers could place combination bets on two or more sports outcomes on the Proline tickets available from provincial lotteries, but multiple wagered outcomes had to be achieved to win. Andrew says he dabbled in a little sports betting, but it didn’t scratch the itch. “It took too long for the game to conclude,” he recalls. Now gamblers can wager on hundreds of sporting outcomes and win before the game has barely started — betting on who will score the first touchdown in a football game, for example.
While bettors across the country are wagering via Proline+ online betting sites run by the lotteries, Ontario offers additional ways to play. On April 4, 2022, 13 private operators launched government-sanctioned internet gambling websites in the province. The latest iGaming Ontario quarterly report lists 46 operators and 71 gaming websites, a mix of online casinos and sports betting sites. Business consultancy firm Deloitte predicted Canada’s new era of private and government-run single-sports betting could generate $28 billion in legal wagers nationally within its first five years, but Ontario’s experience suggests the appetite may be larger. Its new online gambling ventures attracted $35.5 billion in online wagers during their first year of operation.
This glut of online gambling options has been accompanied by a massive advertising push — everything from TV commercials to billboards and social media ads. Hockey Night in Canada is now chock-full of betting odds, causing one newspaper columnist to compare the program to a salesroom for dodgy penny stocks.
Canadians are becoming weary of the hard sell. An Ipsos survey conducted in late 2022 suggests nearly half of Canadians believe the amount and volume of gambling advertising is excessive and needs to be reduced. Some observers also worry that the promotions could negatively affect young people, a concern Andrew echoes. “I think I would have been hooked at 18 rather than 24 if this is how I grew up,” he says.
Among the critical voices is the Campaign to Ban Ads for Gambling, which launched earlier this year. Karl Subban of Toronto brings two important perspectives to the steering committee: he’s not only a retired high school educator but the father of three sons who were drafted into the NHL.
“When my boys were younger, I never had to worry about the content of the commercials,” he says, thinking back to watching hockey games with them. Subban encouraged his sons to look up to their sports idols. “You got to do what they’re doing, to be where they are,” he recalls telling them. But today that message takes on a different tone when hockey standouts like Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and even “the Great One” himself, Wayne Gretzky, star in gambling ads.
“If they were using some normal person that no one knows, who’s not a game changer, who’s not known for excellence, maybe it wouldn’t matter as much,” he says. “But they’re using people who kids love and adore.”
As this story was going to press, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario announced that following public consultations, the use of active or retired athletes in advertisements would be prohibited starting in February 2024. The AGCO also announced restrictions on the use of “celebrities, role models, social media influencers, entertainers, cartoon figures, and symbols” that could appeal to the under-18 population.”
Although Campaign to Ban Ads for Gambling pushes back against the content and volume of gambling advertising in Canada, this doesn’t extend to the product. “We’re not opposed to the legalization of sports gambling,” Subban says.
Indeed, aside from people questioning the ads, complaints about this new wave of gambling haven’t translated to a significant level of protest. Compare that to the 1990s-era launch of government-owned casinos and video lottery terminals (over a hundred casinos and tens of thousands of VLTs now exist nationwide). At that time, citizen activists, faith groups, opposition politicians and small businesses railed against the expansion of in-person gambling to communities coast to coast. The concerns about economic and social harms that once inspired over 10,000 Nova Scotians to sign a petition to halt casinos, that prompted an Ontario MPP to leave the NDP caucus over casino legalization and that galvanized faith leaders to denounce the impacts of legalized gambling in op-eds and interviews no longer provoke such actions. Now that gambling is accessible anywhere on a laptop or smartphone, the same urgency isn’t there — and pushing back against an industry so entrenched in Canadian society is not so easily achieved.
Yet many of the fundamental problems critics have with government-run gambling — the addictive nature, the damage to families and relationships, financial hardships, the disproportionate impact on non-white or economically disadvantaged individuals — haven’t changed.
In an era when some consider activism to be merely sharing posts or sending tweets, the new gambling boom barely gets that low bar of engagement. After fading into the background of Canadian society for many years, gambling should once again be an important cultural discussion. What has changed from a generation ago when the fundamental negative consequences were similar, yet the opposition was louder?
In At Odds: Gambling and Canadians, 1919-1969, McGill University history professor Suzanne Morton writes that Canadians were ambivalent toward gambling for much of the 20th century. The approach was “unofficial toleration and official condemnation,” with Protestants among the loudest opponents. But their Puritan belief that “it was wrong to encourage ‘something for nothing’ at the expense of thrift and savings” became increasingly unpopular as Canadians embraced activities like bingos, horse racing and raffles, Morton observes. Long before lotteries were legalized in 1969 (and provinces given exclusive authority to run them in 1985), people were pushing for such reforms.
Gambling scholars Colin Campbell and Garry Smith have also charted a shift in Canadian attitudes toward gambling. “Since the mid-1960s, notions of gambling generally and excessive gambling specifically have been reconstructed,” they write in a 2003 Canadian Bulletin of Medical History research paper. “Gambling, if done in moderation, is today generally viewed as an acceptable form of leisure.”
Campbell and Smith describe a movement “from vice to disease to responsibility” in social perceptions of gambling. Historically, those who experienced gambling losses were considered “derelict, immoral or criminal,” but over time this came to be viewed as a health problem requiring “government-sponsored therapeutic intervention.” Yet even as governments offered therapy, they dodged the blame for their role as croupier. As the idea that gambling could be enjoyed responsibly gained wide acceptance, excessive gambling became a personal problem, not the fault of the society that enabled it. “The responsible gambling paradigm transposes social problems affiliated with excessive gambling into individual problems and depoliticizes them,” Campbell and Smith argue.
Douglas Walker, a professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who has researched gambling’s social costs for over two decades, adds a further reason for the apathy we witness today. People may have gotten used to the wide availability of gambling, he says, their fears lessened after hurdles were crossed like the initial debates over economic benefits and social costs. “I’m not sure if this is because people believe the benefits outweigh the costs from a public policy perspective, if they just never saw the devastation that had been predicted by some, or that lots of people actually enjoy having the opportunity to gamble.”
As a journalist covering the gambling beat, I’ve noticed the decline of anti-gambling activism in Canada over time and its near absence today. Groups and individuals who once made headlines for their efforts have moved on. Keith Piercey, of Corner Brook, N.L, for example, was involved in public activism after losing his daughter Susan to a gambling-related suicide. She died in 2003 following her addiction to VLTs. In addition to participating in documentaries and speaking out in the press, Piercey and his wife were the lead plaintiffs for a few years in a class action suit against the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. The suit was ultimately dismissed after a court ruled that the lead plaintiff couldn’t be the estate of a deceased person.
Piercey says the big reason he stepped back from activism is because it’s difficult. “After we got finished with the class action, it was such a relief to get away from that. It kind of drifted into the background.” While he paid attention to the topic when it made the news, he didn’t feel compelled to keep playing a public role. “I just didn’t want to be involved anymore because it wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. “That can be discouraging, and you don’t want to keep on fighting so much.”
In Lower Wolfville, a picturesque village in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Bruce Dienes runs Gambling Risk Informed Nova Scotia (GRINS). The organization came into being in part because Dienes asked a group of local congregations to write letters expressing concerns over VLTs in the area. The cause was worthy, they told him, but it wasn’t one of their priorities. In 2011, that led Dienes to launch what later became GRINS, which aims to reduce gambling harms in the Annapolis Valley, as well as across the province. “We raise awareness of the risks and harms gambling can cause in local communities — not only for individuals, but for communities as a whole,” reads the group’s website.
Dienes isn’t surprised by the lack of outcry around government-affiliated gambling. “How could there be moral outrage if there’s no education about what’s actually being done and the level of manipulation that’s happening?” he asks. From the perspective of GRINS, the issue is the government and societal focus on problem gamblers — people who experience elevated degrees of gambling-related harms. It puts the onus on the players instead of on government reliance on gambling revenues. “That’s a really important distinction to make. Because as soon as we start labelling people as the ones with the problem, we lose the entire motivation to make any change.”
GRINS takes an atypical approach to activism. Dienes, whose PhD studies focused on community psychology, follows the Stages of Community Readiness model in approaching gambling as an issue. The model, developed by Colorado State University researchers, spans from “no awareness” on one extreme (think one out of nine) to “high level of community ownership” at the other. It contends that the way to shift a community’s views on a subject is to move it to the next step.
When GRINS used this model to calculate where the community was with regard to gambling, it was at “vague awareness” (think three out of nine), only one step above denial and resistance. The recommended intervention at that level is storytelling, Dienes says, so about five years ago the group first staged an interactive presentation similar to Our Town by Thornton Wilder, with the goal of illustrating how the impacts of gambling problems can be far-reaching in a community, even for those who don’t gamble.
Attendees told organizers it was impactful, Dienes says, but GRINS lacks the resources to deeply measure the spinoff effects of its efforts. Since the group’s founding, membership has hovered between five and 10 people. Instead, its yardstick for success is completing projects and the expectation they are helping to create incremental changes in the local community and more broadly in the province, no matter how small.
“I think the core of GRINS is trying to deflect the industry’s and the government’s attempt to blame individuals [for] the problems and to bring consciousness to the broader community that this affects everybody,” he says. “That’s where culture shift happens — when the majority is concerned about it. It’s like pushing the rock uphill.”
Matthew Young, director of research and evidence services at GREO, an Ontario-based gambling research organization, notices a consequence of the new gambling era in his own home. His kids already recognize major gambling brands, he says, though that’s not true of alcohol or cannabis brands that have tighter advertising restrictions.
Canada’s latest gambling wave lacked significant restrictions out of the gate, which he thinks is the biggest concern. He likens legalized gambling’s goal to the drug policy curve, where regulation optimizes access, but not too much; the goal isn’t to prohibit, but the gambling ads seem to hyper-commercialize the activity.
Still, Young says, simple concepts like “gambling is bad” are easier to mobilize people around, “rather than, ‘Our regulation is too permissive to advertising, and we should next pull it in.’” Since the simpler message was the rallying cry in the past, this may explain the muted response we see today. “It’s a little more complex an issue,” he says. “It’s not as easily translated into activism.”
Young adds it’s ironic because the scale of sports and online gambling advertising is likely to have more broad-reaching harm than a single casino opening in a community, often a focus of past activism. “I study this, and I’m not even sure who to voice concern to,” he says. “So for your regular, everyday community activist or person concerned for the health of their community, that’s the first point of friction.”
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The second, he says, is scale. The gambling industry now affects people across wider geographies, meaning activists who want to mobilize must do so beyond their community. This can be challenging: despite branding itself as a provincial group, GRINS, for instance, is almost entirely run by volunteers local to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
Several community-based anti-casino groups in Canada have existed in recent years, including in Sudbury, Ont., where Christopher Duncanson-Hales leads Casino Free Sudbury. When the group formed in 2013, the mission was clear: to stop a planned casino moving from the city’s periphery into an expanded downtown location. To date, the project hasn’t opened.
“A casino, for good or ill, gives you something to be able to rally around,” says Duncanson-Hales. Online gambling, which his group hasn’t mobilized against, lacks the same visibility. “[It’s] really hidden, and I think that makes it even more problematic, but it also makes it problematic to organize [against] it,” he says.
While Duncanson-Hales, a religious scholar with a PhD in theology, has in the past attracted local faith leaders to speak out against the casino, he understands why it’s a challenge for other organizers to get faith groups involved. “The pews are greying, so I think there’s a general tiredness or weariness,” he says. There’s also declining membership to contend with, meaning there are fewer people to participate in activism. His wife, Melody, is an ordained minister with The United Church of Canada, which is in the midst of selling three buildings in northern Ontario. When churches are trying to survive, they look inward to solve problems, he says. That means some external social justice issues like gambling can fall by the wayside.
In 1977, a report to the United Church’s highest court, the General Council, took the stance that gambling “is a matter of social responsibility rather than only a matter of personal morality.” In 1992, the denomination voted not to accept gambling funds. Measures included abstaining from fundraising activities like bingo or raffles, and making efforts to protect local communities from gambling expansion. As provincial gambling and lottery revenues started to be allocated to community groups, the church advocated that congregations avoid accepting government funds coming from such sources.
In September 1998, together with 17 other churches as part of the Canadian Council of Churches, the United Church wrote a letter to the federal justice minister urging an inquiry into the impacts of gambling. A report the church did earlier that year identified two areas of concern: “the rapid expansion of the gambling economy in Canada” and “the pastoral care and human development challenges that congregations are facing in the wake of gambling expansion in their communities.” Yet today, this advocacy has vanished from discussion.
“We’ve always been an anti-gambling church,” says Rt. Rev. Carmen Lansdowne, The United Church of Canada’s moderator. But in the last two decades, she notes, the church has prioritized commitments to become an intercultural, anti-racist church. Today the denomination’s justice initiatives webpage lists 11 areas of focus, including climate change, ending poverty, and reconciliation and Indigenous justice, but not gambling.
“One of the reasons why it’s not a priority is it’s not filtering up to the church [leadership] from the ground,” she says. Lansdowne also thinks the church “is more concerned with self-preservation” right now than it is with reaching out into the world. “We have a quarter of the staff that we did in 1998,” she says. “It really becomes a capacity issue.”
There is no single answer to why there isn’t a strong level of anti-gambling activism in this wave, but if one theme threads through the various factors, it is a notion of distance. The physical distance from gambling locations. The perceived distance of who to bring concerns to. The mental distance from understanding the consequences of gambling in society. Yet perhaps more than anything else, there’s the emotional distance, a disconnect that keeps people who may never bet on sports games or in online casinos themselves from feeling the problem is one that can affect them or their friends or loved ones.
But as people close to Andrew learned that fateful day he started telling others he needed help, the problem was present in their own lives, just under the surface. As he rebuilt his life, he had some short-term government-funded counselling and attended Gamblers Anonymous meetings. Aside from a few “slips” several years back, Andrew abstains from gambling today. He’s revived his career and moved from his hometown to a larger city with his wife. For his own health, he does what he can to ignore the rise of online gaming. Yet it’s not lost on him that the additional opportunities to gamble, and the advertising that accompanies them, are going to make online gambling increasingly common. “I think it will likely bring more stories like mine.”
Despite some views changing around gambling, there’s one Andrew believes has remained the same. “I think there’s a lot of shame around having a gambling problem,” he says. “And in my case, it being online, it was quite easy to hide.”
Rob Csernyik is a journalist and writer working on a book about Canada’s casino industry. This story first appeared in Broadview’s October/November 2023 issue with the title “Canada’s big gamble.”
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