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At the moment, there is less variation between Canadian provinces in terms of legal online gambling than there is between US states. That said, provinces do have some discretion in what’s available, and Ontario is poised to be the first to create a competitive market for online casino products.
Canadian federal law takes a minimalist approach when it comes to gambling. It forbids a few specific types of gambling outright – most notably including single-event sports wagering – but leaves everything else to provincial lottery corporations. Charitable organizations can also offer some forms of gambling, but only on a limited-time basis.
In Ontario, two forms of online casino gaming are available. Firstly, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) offers casino products through its own site. These are fully and unambiguously legal.
Secondly, there are many commercial online casinos serving Canadians – including Ontarians – in a gray market capacity. What this means is that Canadian law doesn’t say anything one way or another about the legality of foreign companies using offshore servers to serve Canadian customers. In the absence of a formal prohibition, the government does nothing to prevent them from doing so. At the same time, they have no oversight and aren’t as safe as a locally licensed and regulated site would be.
The current Conservative government under Premier Doug Ford is looking to change this situation. The specifics are up in the air, but the government has signaled its intention to create a private market in which commercial operators could receive formal authorization from the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to offer their products in the province.
In its past two budgets, Ontario has indicated that it plans on privatizing iGaming. Until this year, however, those promises were light on specifics and the government had taken little in the way of concrete action.
Finally, this year, the ball is getting rolling.
Less than a week after the Registrar’s Standards, Ontario has released the Internet Gaming Operator Application Guide. Licenses will cost $100,000 annually, and be available even to gray market operators, so long as they cease serving Ontario customers before applying. Once the market launches, unlicensed operators will be considered black market instead, and those continuing to serve Ontarians will find themselves barred from entering the market legally at a later date.
AGCO hasn’t yet begun accepting applications, but says it will do so in a matter of weeks. A guide for supplier applications will arrive in the interim.
Ontario has released its Registrar’s Standards for Internet Gaming. These are light on specific instructions to operators, focusing instead on required outcomes. It will be up to the operators themselves to determine how best to achieve those outcomes, which are categorized into six risk themes, like responsible gambling, and information security & protection of assets.
In announcing the Standards, it reiterated that it expects to have the market off the ground before year’s end.
Over the last few months, Ontario has taken several important early steps in the process.
In February, it created a new division responsible for oversight of the new market, and appointed Martha Otton as its Executive Director. She has nine years of prior experience as the Commission’s Chief Strategy Officer.
On Mar. 3, the government released a discussion paper laying out its plans. The same day, it appointed Birgitte Sand, former director of the Danish Gaming Authority to take the reins in leading the province to launch its new market. Her first task was overseeing public discussion of the paper, which continued until Apr. 16.
Most recently, the province has released a draft of its standards and begun taking license applications from independent testing labs (ITLs). Once approved by the province, these outside companies will be responsible for certifying that operators’ products meet the criteria for launch.
The province hopes to be able to launch the new market before the end of the year, but there’s still a lot to do. In particular, it will need to pass legislation to allow AGCO to issue licenses to entities other than OLG. Without that, everything else is a pointless exercise.
There is one formally legal, real money online casino option in Ontario at the moment. Having some selection would be nice, and will come with the launch of the new privatized market. In the meantime, however, there’s nothing wrong with the one online casino that exists for now.
That casino is the one you’ll find through OLG’s own site. The good news is that it’s got much the same features as any commercial casino, so the lack of private sector competition isn’t leaving Ontario gamblers in the lurch.
Some other provinces split off their iGaming from the lottery’s core operations, but not Ontario. You’ll find the online casino games on the main OLG website, right next to traditional lottery products and Pro-Line sports betting.
Most lottery-run online casinos in Canada have chosen IGT as their technology provider, but OLG bucks that trend. Instead, it runs on Scientific Games’ platform, and that company also provides most of the games. There are hundreds of these to choose from, from the same catalog you’d find at a commercial casino, including popular titles likes Raging Rhino Megaways and Zeus: God of Thunder.
OLG also has its own responsible gambling program, PlaySmart, and a welcome bonus for new players. This consists of a 100% match on the first three deposits. Each has a maximum of $100, but taken together, the total $300 bonus is quite generous for a lottery site, though not quite as large as what you’d get from some of the bigger commercial operators in the US.
The one area in which OLG falls short of a commercial sector operator is when it comes to mobile play. You can use its online casino on a mobile device, but only by going through the browser app. OLG does not provide a mobile casino app.
That isn’t unique to Ontario, however. Of the five Canadian lottery corporations and three associated iGaming sites, only the Atlantic Lottery Corporation offers online casino gaming from within its own mobile app.
OLG does have an app, as do most of lotteries. However, it doesn’t offer any direct gambling options. Rather, it consists of a collection of tools to help traditional lottery customers find retailers, scan their tickets, check winning numbers, set up alerts for large jackpots, and so forth.
This situation is one which will improve dramatically with the launch of commercial iGaming. Essentially all the major operators have mobile apps available, so it will become easier to game on the go once they arrive.
In terms of game selection, the existing OLG Online Casino hits all the same bases as a commercial casino. Individual sites curate their catalogs differently, so there will be more choice overall when the market opens up. However, there aren’t any major categories of games that are currently absent and likely to accompany the arrival of commercial online casinos.
The one possible exception is live dealer games (see below). These aren’t currently available in Ontario, but could appear in future, either in a private market or through the lottery. There are two Canadian lottery-run iGaming sites with live dealer products: PlayAlberta and Québec’s Espace Jeux.
Here’s what you’ll find for now:
Slots form the bread and butter of any casino operation, online or off. They’re popular, fast paced, allow for both low- and high-stakes play, and bring in a lot of revenue. They also translate well from a retail casino environment to digital form. That’s especially true for video slots, since they’re electronic games to begin with.
Slots vary in their mechanics, so it’s worth looking at the info for various titles when you’re deciding on which one to play. Return to player is one important consideration, as this determines the statistical cost to play the game. For instance, 96.0% is a fairly average RTP, and would mean that you’re losing 4 cents on average each time you spin.
In a vacuum, higher RTP is better, but ultimately gambling is supposed to be about having fun, so there’s nothing wrong with picking a slightly tighter game if you find it more enjoyable.
Volatility is also something to consider, as two slots with the same RTP can provide very different experiences. Low volatility slots will make you more likely to have a winning or break-even session, but high volatility ones give you a better (though still small) chance of booking a really big win. Progressive jackpot slots are the most volatile of all, and can pay out in the hundreds of thousands or occasionally even the millions of dollars.
Aside from slots, most casino games fall under the broad umbrella of table games. This includes pretty much anything that involves cards, dice, spinning wheels or the like.
Blackjack is the most popular table game in the western world, both online and live. It’s especially popular with gamblers who also enjoy poker and/or sports betting, since it has a skill element like those games, and the house edge can be tiny if you find a good rule set and play optimally. Add in promotional bonuses and you may even enjoy a positive edge for a time.
Roulette is the runner-up for popularity. When you see multiple versions, make sure to pick single zero or European roulette, two names for the same game. There’s absolutely no advantage to choosing a wheel with a double zero or triple zero space, as these only serve to increase the house edge.
Baccarat is extremely popular in Asia, but less so in the west. It is, however, a common feature in high roller rooms, though you can play for low stakes online. It’s a simple game, and the only choice the player makes is whether to bet on the banker hand, the player hand, or a tie. Betting on the banker hand offers the best odds, while betting on the tie should be avoided at all cost.
Table poker isn’t a single game, but a class of table games like three-card poker and Ultimate Texas Hold’em. These games resemble real poker only in that they use the same hand rankings. There’s no opponent except the house, and typically the only decisions for the player involve whether to double the bet mid-hand, or surrender the initial stake.
There are a few oddball games that aren’t quite slots and aren’t quite table games.
Video poker is the most common of these, and resembles blackjack in terms of its moderately complex strategy and low house edge when played correctly. In broad terms, the correct strategy for most situations in most variants is to ignore the lower payouts and chase royal flushes and other jackpot hands.
Keno is another one you’ll find at most online casinos. It resembles a draw lottery, except taking place on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately, the house edge on it is almost as large as for those lotteries, making it a game to be avoided if you’re being odds-conscious.
Live dealer games represent an effort to combine the best aspects of retail and online play. The convenience and interface are similar to that of a digital casino product. However, instead of animated computer graphics and a digital random number generator, these products use video streamed live and direct from a special studio.
If you’re playing live dealer blackjack, for instance, you’ll see a real human dealer shuffling a real deck of cards and dealing them out for you. You can even interact with the dealer by typing in a chat box, and potentially with other players too, depending on the game.
As the moment, only Quebec and Alberta offer these games, so you won’t find them in Ontario. That could easily change even if OLG remained the only game in town, but a live dealer launch becomes even more likely once the market becomes privatized.
OLG’s online casino uses almost the same set of cashiering options as other provincial lottery and iGaming sites. The main exception is that there’s no option to prepay with cash at a lottery retailer. Some form of plastic or digital currency is required.
Here’s what you can use for depositing:
For withdrawals, there is only one option, which is a direct bank transfer.
The arrival of a private market may increase the number of payment processing options available. For instance, some online gambling companies have gift cards available. If Ontario ends up following the same model as most American states, the online sites may be associated with specific retail casinos in the province, in which case you may be able to conduct cash transactions at the cashier’s cage.
OLG’s casino doesn’t do much in the way of short-term promotions or reload bonuses. There’s really just the one promotion at the moment, which is that 100% match up to $100 on each of a player’s first three deposits.
Naturally, this is another place where the arrival of commercial competition would create more options. Online casinos don’t have all that many ways to differentiate themselves, but promotions are one of the few levers they have available.
Once the private sector arrives, expect to find most or all of the following:
Need more information about online casino privatization in Ontario? We’ve got you covered.
The only explicitly legal online casino for Ontarians at the moment is the one run by OLG. Offshore gambling might be better described as “not illegal.” The companies are doing something that would be illegal if they were conducting it on Canadian soil. The fact that they’re doing it through the internet, from servers located in other countries, makes it a legal gray area.
An attempt by Québec to block access to offshore gambling sites was deemed unconstitutional in court. Any prohibition on offshore gambling in Ontario would be similarly toothless.
The problem with gray markets is that there’s no local oversight, so an offshore site will never be as safe as a locally licensed one. However, there’s an important distinction to be made between completely unregulated black market sites, and those which operate in licensed fashion where they can, but still serve gray markets as well.
The easiest way to tell the difference is that black market sites:
Such sites should be avoided at all cost. Other offshore operators are still somewhat of a risk, because you’ll have no legal recourse if anything goes wrong. We don’t recommend it, but if you’re going to do it, look for dot-com domains and licenses from the Isle of Man or Malta, which have respected regulatory authority for international gambling.
Ontario is looking to privatize its online casino market. It’s a little bit complicated however, because Canadian federal law gives the provincial lotteries a monopoly on gambling. Provinces wishing to have private sector competition instead must create a framework for private companies to offer their products to citizens in partnership with the lottery.
The province says it’s hoping to get things off the ground before the end of 2021. It is still quite early in the process, however, so this may prove too optimistic.
Ontario started taking its first concrete steps on the issue this February. Looking to the US, states that have legalized online gambling have often taken a year or slightly more from passing a law to launching the new products. Although Ontario hasn’t actually passed a law yet, other parts of the process are underway, so it’s probably reasonable to expect a similar timeline.
That depends on what you’re comparing it to. Compared to the single, legal option currently present, it’s mainly about consumer choice. Having multiple companies serving Ontario will mean that they compete to entice players with bonus offers, promotions, unique products, and so forth. This may make for a better player experience.
However, the merits of a regulated market are more important and clear-cut when compared to the current situation, which is that private companies already serve Ontario customers, just in an unofficial capacity, with no local oversight. Licensing and regulating those operators provides several advantages:
Regardless of what happens, online casino gambling – like all gambling – will be under the supervision of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation. At the moment, it both regulates and operates the only official online gambling site in the province. If and when the privatized market launches, it will still remain as the regulator and partner of any commercial operators which enter the market.
Not right now. However, if Ontario’s experiment proves successful, it’s one we could see rolled out in other provinces. Overall, Canada is looking to liberalize its policies on online gambling and sports betting, but most provinces still seem to prefer the idea of a government monopoly.
No. Canada doesn’t tax gambling winnings in most cases, and that applies for online gambling whether the site is officially licensed or not.
There is one caveat. Canada does tax winnings for anyone it considers a professional gambler. That means anyone who doesn’t have another job, uses a system to gamble in a statistically profitable manner, and makes their living at it. This is more of an issue for poker players and sports bettors, however. As a casino user, you’re unlikely to be considered a professional no matter how much you play.