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Bill on single-game sports passes third reading — but not for first time

The Canadian Press logo The Canadian Press 2021-04-23
a football player holding a bat on a baseball field © Provided by The Canadian Press

OTTAWA — Lawmakers passed a bill to legalize single-event sports betting Thursday, sending the legislation to the Senate and bringing the country a step closer to looser gaming laws.

The bill aims to amend Criminal Code provisions around gambling on single games of football, hockey and other sports — currently illegal except for horse racing — in a bid to win back customers from offshore sites, U.S. casinos and illegal bookmakers.

The legislation has garnered renewed enthusiasm from MPs in all four main parties. But the private member's bill from Conservative MP Kevin Waugh isn't the first to blaze a trail through the House of Commons before burning out. 

Similar NDP legislation zipped through the House with all-party support nearly a decade ago but foundered in the Senate and died when an election was called in 2015.

A second attempt by New Democrat MP Brian Masse also failed after the then-Liberal majority voted down his private member’s bill in concert with Conservatives in 2016.

Third time may be the charm, after the Liberals rolled the dice last November on their own legislation, which they subsequently dropped when Waugh agreed to incorporate its protections for the horse-racing industry into his bill.

The legislation, known as Bill C-218, garnered tentative support from a tight-knit horse-racing industry that remains wary of casinos and foreign gambling sites encroaching on its turf.

Las Vegas-style betting on single games would eat into the multibillion-dollar black market by legally opening the books to gamblers eager to lay down money on individual games rather than wagering on fixed-odds around two or more games.

"It’s harder to win on three games," Waugh said in an interview. "You could do the Maple Leafs in the playoffs, or Blue Jays or Raptors.


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"This will give provincial authorities full jurisdiction for single-event betting. What this bill does is take a line out of the Criminal Code to let them."

The prohibition's initial aim was to curtail match-fixing — it's easier to scheme when there's just one game to manipulate — but it became increasingly ineffective amid the rise of offshore betting sites.

The legislation passed third reading in the House with all-party support Thursday evening.

It garnered support from industry, advocates and athletic organizations, including the Canadian Gaming Association, Responsible Gambling Council, Unifor and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Justice Minister David Lametti said the Liberals "fully support these changes, and are eager to see them move forward."

"The changes put forward would help take illegal betting profits from single-sporting events out of the hands of organized crime, and give provinces and territories the ability to regulate and redirect the funds back into our communities," he said in an emailed statement.

An online sports betting racket overseen by the Canadian Mafia allegedly netted the notorious Montreal-based Rizzuto crime family more than $26 million between 2004 and 2005, according to the RCMP.

More than two dozen U.S. states have moved to legalize single-event betting after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal ban in 2018, potentially siphoning off customers from Ontario casinos in Windsor and Niagara Falls.

Waugh said the main goal of Bill C-218 is to level the track globally against large foreign sites such as Bet365 and Bodog that garner more than $4 billion from Canadian bettors each year, according to the Canadian Gaming Association.

Casinos might also benefit, but if the bill passes it will be up to the provinces to decide how to regulate single-event bets.

The Senate is slated to sit again starting May 4, though typically deals with government legislation before private member's bills.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2021.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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