Gambling | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Gambling is the betting of something of value on the outcome of a contingency or event, the result of which is uncertain and may be determined by chance, skill, a combination of chance and skill, or a contest.


Gambling is the betting of something of value on the outcome of a contingency or event, the result of which is uncertain and may be determined by chance, skill, a combination of chance and skill, or a contest. Long before John Cabot's voyage to Canada in 1497, gambling was popular among native people. While many of the native games from the past are now recalled only as a part of cultural history, native people used gaming sticks for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans and the decks of playing cards they brought with them.

For the past century or so the most popular gambling games have been the card games of poker, stook and blackjack, and the dice games of craps and barbotte. During the KLONDIKE GOLD RUSH, the game of Faro, played with a regular deck of cards, was popular. The origins of Faro can be traced to the German game of "landsquenet," which was played as early as 1400. Faro was introduced by American gamblers in areas such as Dawson City, Yukon, where fortunes were won and lost on the turn of a card. When the gold rush ended, so did the popularity of Faro in Canada, although its popularity has survived in the US. (The name has also survived in the name of the town of FARO, YT.)

Legal Status

Since its original enactment in 1892, the Canadian CRIMINAL CODE, following the English common law, has tolerated gambling under certain conditions. A 1910 amendment allowed pari-mutuel (from "Paris mutuel") betting. This form of betting, in which winners divide losers' stakes and a cut of the bet goes to the track, to the horsemen and the state, became the official and legal form of betting in France in 1894. The amendment also allowed occasional games of chance where profits were used for charitable or religious purposes. A few games were also permitted at agricultural fairs and exhibitions.

Gambling laws, although amended from time to time, remained relatively unchanged until 1970, when sweeping changes to the Criminal Code gave the provinces the authority to license and regulate gambling, with a few exceptions.

Multibillion-Dollar Industry

The 1970 changes have resulted in the creation of a multibillion-dollar gambling industry throughout Canada. In 1989 Canada's first commercial casino opened in Winnipeg followed in 1993 by Montréal. Other provinces have since followed. Manitoba, Québec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan all have commercial casino operations. Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) have been placed in operation by a number of provincial governments. They are simply video slot machines which, instead of vending coins to winners, produce a coupon which is redeemed for cash by the licensee upon whose premises the machines are operated. VLTs have proven to be popular machines and generate millions of dollars annually to provincial governments. The provincial governments are now actively involved in operating LOTTERIES. A large number of charitable and religious groups have come to rely upon gaming revenues for annual budgetary obligations. Agricultural exhibitions and fairs derive substantial profits from gambling activity during annual celebrations. Pari-mutuel racetrack betting has long been a popular pastime; in 1984 Canadians bet $1.64 billion at racetracks across Canada (see THOROUGHBRED RACING).

Betting on individual sporting events, by far the most popular form of illegal gambling, generates large profits for the bookmakers, and is the largest source of gambling revenue of ORGANIZED CRIME. Illegal private gaming houses can be found in every major Canadian city. Swindlers using a variety of cheating techniques are common in gaming houses and are also active in legally operated private gambling establishments but almost never attract the attention of law enforcement.

Illegal gambling is generally perceived as a "victimless crime" and is not one for which the police receive many complaints. Unlike other crimes, modern illegal gambling is tolerated, and there is no public pressure exerted to control it. Its existence and continual growth has seemingly had no effect on the legal gambling market. At the same time, liberalization of legal gambling activities since 1970 appears to have had no effect on illegal gambling.

During the past 80 years gambling in Canada has evolved from an activity socially tolerated only within narrow restraints to a broadly acceptable leisure-time activity. The social, legal and economic consequences of these activities are beginning to be chronicled.

Social Costs

The vast majority of Canadians are able to integrate gambling into their lifestyles without putting themselves in jeopardy; however, for a minority of citizens, out-of-control gambling can have devastating repercussions. Recent provincial studies indicate the about 5% of adults experience problems as a result of their gambling and the adolescent problem gambling rate is 3 times higher than the adult rate. Even though the percentage of problem gamblers in Canadian society is relatively small, excessive gambling is not a victimless activity. It is estimated that a problem gambler has a damaging effect on 10 to 15 people around them, including relatives, friends and employers.

The fallout from uncontrolled gambling includes life savings lost, bankrupted businesses, gamblers turning to crimes such as fraud and embezzlement to support their habits, incidents of child neglect, spouse abuse and fractured marriages, and gambling-related troubles in the workplace such as absenteeism and declining productivity. Provincial governments have begun to recognize that there are social costs associated with gambling, and as a result are providing ongoing funding for programs to prevent or mitigate the damages caused by problem gambling.

Further Reading