Journal of Law and Social Policy

Document Type

Voices and Perspectives

English Abstract

Canada's First Nations gaming industry, now entering its third decade of operations, includes sixteen for-profit casinos operating in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario (two charity casinos also operate in Ontario) and eleven Nova Scotia First Nations operating just under six hundred Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) annually generating approximately one billion dollars gross revenues. Each of these sites was constructed with the goal of generating revenue for economically struggling communities, but in most cases, they quickly became the lightning rod of a complex sovereignty discourse underlined by First Nations claims that they possessed the inherent right to control on-reserve economic development. The greatest complications arose in the early 1990s when the provincial governments in Manitoba and Ontario rebuffed First Nations seeking permission to construct reserve casinos. A convoluted constitutional debate ensued regarding the precise legal responsibility for First Nations. Specifically, first, did the provinces have a legal right to compel First Nations to negotiate formal gambling compacts? and second, could the provinces enter into formal gambling compacts with First Nations? The Canadian courts responded that the provinces were correct in requiring First Nations to negotiate entry into the gambling industry, that the provinces were tasked with providing oversight, and that they could enter into formal compacts with First Nations seeking industry access. Federal officials nevertheless remained uncertain about provincial motives, especially when provincial bureaucrats expressed concern that they would be seen as yielding to race-based rights should casinos be built. The media likewise questioned the suitability of permitting First Nations casino operations. Some First Nations responded by protesting cases (many established what were by provincial standards illegal casinos), while others petitioned the courts to clarify their rights. Others initiated long-term negotiations. Nevertheless, by 1996, First Nations casinos were operating in Saskatchewan (four) and Ontario (one).

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