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By most accounts, it’s a near-certainty that legal single-game sports wagering is coming to Canada eventually. The bigger question is when, as it’s an effort that keeps running into delays. Hopes were high that 2020 would be the year, but recent political developments have made that far less likely.
Bill C-218 was introduced by MP Kevin Waugh (CPC, Saskatoon-Grasswood) and co-sponsored by Brian Masse (NDP, Windsor West), making it a bipartisan effort. It would redact a single paragraph from the Criminal Code which prohibits wagers on the result of a single sporting event. However, it never got further than its first reading in February before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Even so, the expectation was that progress on the bill would resume later in the year. OnlinePokerReport spoke to Canadian Gaming Association president Paul Burns on the subject in June.
“In the House of Commons there is support from Members of all parties,” he said at the time. “We expect over the summer and into the fall the business of the House to pick up (not sure yet) so the current Bill could be passed. It is frustrating, however, we believe it’ not a matter of if, just when the amendment will pass.”
Unfortunately, that prediction doesn’t look likely to come to pass now. The ruling Liberal minority government has prorogued Parliament until Sept. 23. When it resumes, the effort for full, legal sports betting will have to begin anew, and may still face further interruptions.
The Canadian government operates differently from the US, and is based on the British parliamentary system. Prorogation is the discretionary ending of a parliamentary session without triggering a new election. It is an act performed by the Governor General who, in practice, generally does it at the request of the sitting Prime Minister.
In principle, the purpose of prorogation is to allow a reset of legislative priorities. That is usually either because the current agenda has been accomplished or because circumstances have changed. However, governments are sometimes accused of abusing it in order to stall for time when facing a scandal or political headwinds. Exactly which is happening here depends on who you ask.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government claim that they need the time to form a plan of action to deal with an expected resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall. Trudeau is, however, also facing accusations of improperly awarding a government contract to a charity to which his family has financial links. His opponents claim that is the real reason.
Whatever the case, it means that Bill C-218 has been swept off the table along with all other proposed legislation. Fortunately, it’s a simple bill, so reintroducing it won’t be hard. However, it will start from square one again and will be competing for attention with piles of other legislation.
Another thing the prorogation does is open the possibility for an early election. Canadian federal elections can take place up to five years apart, but this is a maximum, and four years is more common.
The ruling government can call an election at any time if it sees an advantage in doing so. However, with a minority government, opposition parties can trigger an election as well, via a vote of no confidence. One opportunity to do this is following the throne speech which the PM delivers after parliament resumes.
Either is possible here. Opposition parties have repeatedly threatened an early election. On the other hand, the Liberals are currently polling well and might actually benefit from one right now. It’s unlikely, however, as the last election was just last year. Federal elections in consecutive years are uncommon because voters tend to resent having to return to the polls too quickly. The last time such a thing happened was in 1980.
If there were to be a quick election, however, it would push the timeline for a sports betting bill back even further. On the other hand, the Liberals are overall less enthusiastic on the subject than the other parties. If they were to lose, it might be a higher priority for whichever party took power in their place.
The status quo for sports betting in Canada is effectively that of a gray market. The provincial lotteries offer legal sports betting, but only in the form of parlays. As a result, many bettors prefer to wager with offshore sites, because they offer single-game lines.
The legality of these is ambiguous. Canadian gambling laws date back to well before the internet made such betting possible, so don’t address the topic. The government has no interest in prosecuting its citizens for using them. As far as the sites themselves go, Canada doesn’t have the international political clout to pursue them as the US Department of Justice did with poker sites in 2011. As a result, some sites that operate in legal and licensed fashion elsewhere — such as Bet365 — serve Canadian customers.
The most recent example of this is also the most brazen. The new Dan Bilzerian-sponsored sportsbook, Blitzbet runs out of Curaçao and happily serves Canadian players. Yet its operator, Deluxe Crown BV, is a subsidiary of a Canadian company, I3 Interactive, which trades on the Canadian stock exchange. There has even been positive coverage for Blitzbet in Canadian newspapers.
That Canadian authorities have taken no action against I3 is testament to how little interest or ability they have in policing online gambling at the moment. Legalizing single-game wagering could change the situation dramatically, however. Provincial governments would then have an incentive to try to protect the legal business of their lotteries.
Black market sportsbooks would likely be undeterred by that. However, companies with an interest in preserving their reputations, such as those with licenses in other jurisdictions, might well pull out. And those like Blitzbet, who aren’t completely out of reach, might find the authorities suddenly less inclined to look the other way.