New social ill or boon? First Nations push for casinos

A group of Yukon First Nations is betting a fair share of the Yukon’s gambling revenues and the right to run casinos could help them defeat…

A group of Yukon First Nations is betting a fair share of the Yukon’s gambling revenues and the right to run casinos could help them defeat their social ills.

Standing in their way, they say, is a territorial government “unwilling” to share the pot.

With casinos and gambling becoming increasingly vital to government bank balances across Canada, many feel the trend will soon spread north to the Yukon.

But is opening up the gates to gambling cash worth the inevitable social risks?

Champagne/Aishihik First Nations chief James Allen feels they are.

“Gaming is going to come to the Yukon whether this government likes it or not,” said Allen, at the recent Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly held outside Mayo.

“So why not be a little more proactive and help us set up something? Nationally, across Canada, it’s happening.”

Gambling brings problems with addiction, dependence on revenues for governments, and indirect social scourges like alcoholism and suicide.

But allowing First Nations to run their own gaming industry could give much needed cash to First Nation governments to address social problems, said Allen.

“If First Nations get involved in gaming, we would have the ability to help people with gambling addictions, but also other social issues, such as alcohol abuse,” he said.

Infrastructure, such as elders’ facilities in communities, could also be built, he said.

“Our elders want to stay in their homeland. They don’t want to go to Whitehorse or Dawson.”

A gaming industry would also create jobs and employment training, he added.

“It’s only been the other governments — who give nothing back to the First Nations — that have been taking the gains” from gaming in the Yukon, said Allen.

“We’re not asking to introduce something new. But they don’t want to open the doors.”

Under the Yukon Lotteries Act, charitable organizations and religious groups are permitted to run bingos and casinos.

A bingo can run for no more than 104 days a year, and a casino can operate for no more than three days in a row.

Diamond Tooth Gerties in Dawson is the only facility currently exempt from those limitations.

Allen, along with four other First Nations chiefs, recently hired a consultant who proposed an organization similar to Saskatchewan’s Indian Gaming Commission to the Yukon government.

But that proposal “went nowhere,” said Allen.

He refused to disclose which First Nations were involved.

Since 1992, the Saskatchewan Indian Gaming Commission has successfully pushed for legislation to open up the province’s gaming industry to aboriginal involvement.

Champagne-Aishihik has been pushing for similar developments here for more than a decade, said Allen.

Not much has happened as a result, he said.

“We’ve talked to governments, we’ve talked to bureaucrats, we’ve talked to lawyers, we’ve talked to the feds, and their lawyers, but we’ll keep plugging at it.”

Bets in legal games of chance total about $27 billion every year in Canada, according to the National Council of Welfare.

Provincial and territorial lottery ticket sales are worth $5.2 billion annually, while bingos, charity casinos, and raffles rake in close to $5 billion yearly, according to the council.

First Nations directly profit from casinos in Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nova Scotia, while charitable gaming takes place on many reserves in other provinces.

In the North, gambling revenue rose from $5 million in 1992 to $8 million in 2004, as citizens spent $105 million on gaming in 2004, according to Statistics Canada.

“Needless to say, the revenues provincial and territorial governments get from the proceeds of gambling are attractive, if not downright addictive,” reads a report from the welfare council.

Allen is quick to point out those revenues often come from the pockets of First Nations players.

“The service groups and YTG all benefit from the bingo that our people — who are 85 per cent of the people in the bingo hall — and none of that money goes back to helping us with our social issues,” he said.

An example is the new Keno scratch game from Yukon Lotteries that “has taken hold” of many First Nations elders, said Allen.

“None of that revenue goes back to addressing social needs for First Nations people,” he said.

Money generated from lottery sales returns to the territory in a trust, said Lotteries Yukon financial officer, Coelin Deforrest.

The lottery commission is mandated to distribute money through applicant grants and to local authorities in each community for recreational needs, she said.

And, through the communities lottery fund, 48 per cent of all Yukon lottery revenue is made available for sports and recreation and arts funding, she added.

While Allen has struggled for an audience for his gaming ideas at the Yukon legislature, other First Nations governments are far more receptive.

That includes CYFN.

“There are pros and cons to gaming,” said CYFN grand chief, Andy Carvill, at the general assembly last week.

The majority of reserves that have gaming have “flourished” economically and socially, he said.

“Some of them have their own schools, their own health system.”

But deciding what’s best for gaming in the Yukon “will take a little more work,” he said.

“There are social implications as well as economic opportunity.”

Carvill has spoken to Allen and has offered help to develop policy and a review of impacts gaming would have in the North, he said.

“Whoever the premier is, we’ll sit down with him at that time and start entering into these discussions, about the positives that may come from it.”

Negotiations in the United States for First Nation gaming facilities are often initiated after a casino is built, forcing more senior governments to take notice, said Allen.

“It may come to that up in the Yukon, if no government that comes into power starts listening to us,” he said.

Representatives from the department of Community Services, in charge of gaming in the Yukon, were unavailable for comment due to vacations.