History of Gambling in Canada

Due to the fact that gambling hasn’t always been legal in Canada, it’s safe to assume that Canada is a relatively inexperienced country as far as gambling is concerned. Such an assumption would be far from the truth though, as gambling has been a part of these lands before Canada as we know it today even existed.

This is because modern Canada, which is made up of European immigrants, has only been around for about 150 years, whilst the country itself has been populated for a lot longer than that. Gambling has always played a big role in human civilization, and it seems that no matter how deep into the past you go, there has always been some form of gambling. As we shall discover over the course of this article, Canada, which has a long and expansive history, is no different.

Gambling Before European Settlement

We know that gambling existed in Canada in the 15th Century, because John Cabot visited the country and discovered that the native population were playing games of chance. Cabot was an Italian explorer, and although he isn’t given the same respect or page space in the history books as explorers like Magellan and Columbus, he was one of the earliest Europeans to visit the North American continent. Of course, it is now known that a small band of Vikings set sail for North America and landed somewhere on the North American—and most probably the Canadian— coast, but they had no intention of writing about their findings or of making a lot of money from it, and merely wanted to settle in a new country.

Cabot expected to find a route to China and was commissioned by the English for his travels. Historians dispute where Cabot first landed, but it is widely accepted that it was somewhere in Canada, and that he encountered a native population as soon as he and his men set foot off the boats. He discovered that the gambling games played a big role in the native society, and what’s more, he also discovered that these games had been played for many hundreds of years. He speculated that these games had actually been played since 6,000BC, and although it is difficult to ascertain whether this is true or not, it is clear that some form of gambling had existed in this region for almost as long as there had been humans living there.

Obviously, the native Canadians didn’t have cards or even dice. Their primary tools for gambling consisted of sticks and stones, and the game they created was simple but effective, by all accounts. Cabot was fascinated by this local population and by the games they played, but his discovery precipitated a European invasion that would eventually shun these locals and their games.

European Invasion

When the English settled in Canada they did so under a law that had been set by King Richard III. Games of chance, played with dice, were incredibly popular during the formative years of the British Empire, and in an effort to stop what he considered a plague damaging the minds of his solders (and eating into their archery practice time) the king outlawed them. This followed the British into Canada and the law remained in place over the years that followed.

Gambling still existed. As is often the case, just because something is illegal doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take place. The early settlers loved to gamble just as much as modern Canadians do. It was a way to pass time, a way to inject some excitement into the monotony of day-to-day life. Despite being against the law, it was widely known that gambling took place and for many centuries the penalties for those caught gambling were pretty lenient. Simply put, in such hard times, no one wanted to waste time or effort prosecuting people just because they wanted to risk a few bucks over a game of dice.

Card games were also widely available throughout the early years of Canada. In fact, although it’s easy to see playing cards as a modern invention, the cards that we use today (known as French Playing cards) first emerged in the 15th Century. It may have taken some time before they became common, but they were almost certainly used throughout the early years of Canada’s formation.

Complete Ban

Some forms of gambling became accepted in Canada, even those that went against the now ancient rules imposed by King Richard III. For many decades Canada enjoyed relative freedom when it came to gambling, but that stopped in 1892, which proved to be a pivotal date in the timeline of Canada, as this was the date in which all forms of gambling became illegal. This was a rash decision to say the least, but at the time religion played an important role in the lives of many and with movements such as the puritans spreading talk about the evils of gambling, it seemed inevitable that such a ban would be put into place.

As gambling was seen as a sin, it wasn’t even practiced legally, at least not to a large extent. There was a sense of hypocrisy to this though, as is so often the case. The churches and the government understood the usefulness of some forms of gambling, so in time some gambling slipped through the cracks, allowed for “charitable” reasons. This included lotteries, bingo, raffles, etc., During the 1950s, when the popularity of Las Vegas was taking off south of the border, some harder forms of gambling began to creep into Canadian society. Thanks to singers such as Frank Sinatra, and to the glamorous lifestyles of the Vegas hotshots, it became cool to gamble.

The attitude that gambling was immoral shifted with the populace, although it took some time to convince the government. Gradually, gambling began to seep into the Canadian way of life and the government began to relax the gambling laws, first turning a blind eye and then making certain forms of gambling officially legal. By the close of the 20th century, gambling was widely available and mostly legal. Canada wasn’t quite Las Vegas, but with gambling widely accessible across the country and not just in one place, it had something that the United States of America did not.

The Modern Age

As far as gambling is concerned, modern Canada is completely different to everything that has gone before. As soon as gambling was legalized, its availability increased, with a huge number of lotteries springing up around the country, alongside other games of chance. Casinos inevitably followed as well and these days there is a large number of casinos around, with some of the best ones (including the Niagara Fallsview casino) located in the province of Ontario. In Canada, as is the case in many great gambling countries, you don’t need to be in the big cities or the big provinces in order to find a casino, a horse racing track or a poker room. There are many of these dotted around the country and you will find that every town, big or small, has some form of gambling to keep you entertained.

In 2001, which was when the internet was just becoming widespread, it was reported that there were close to 40,000 Video lottery Terminals in Canada, spread throughout around 10,000 different locations. Often shortened to VLT, these terminals are very similar to slot machines and are somewhat unique to Canada. The Aussies have their pokies, the Yanks have their slots, the Brits have their FOBTs, and us Canadians have VLTs. There isn’t a huge difference and they are all run on random number generators, with many of them operating on a ticket-based system, but there are slight differences. Canadians are no stranger to slot machines either, and this report also stated that there were over 30,000 slot machines throughout Canada, many of which were located in the 60 or so land-based casinos.

It was also reported that there were close to 2,000 bingo halls and around 33,000 terminals for purchasing lottery tickets. These two past-times have flourished in Canada over the years, regardless of the legal status of other forms of gambling, and they continue to do so in the modern age. It was also said that there were around 70 racetracks, which is another thing that Canadians hold close to their hearts. All in all, the figures reported in 2001 proved what everyone had already estimated, that Canada was becoming a gambling hotspot. This was close to 15 years ago though, so what’s happened in that time? Well, as you would expect, these figures have increased, in some cases exponentially. Gambling growth has never slowed and in some areas, such as Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, it has seemingly picked up year on year. However, there is one form of gambling that is moving faster than any other, one form that has gotten the world hooked and has also won the hearts of gamblers. This form of gambling hasn’t always been well received by the government though.

Online Gambling in Canada

Online gambling was widely available in Canada from the beginning. In the early days, even countries where gambling was illegal were of the assumption that as long as the online casino or poker room was not located in that country, then everything was okay. The idea was that the casino would basically lay the blame on the players, putting the onus on them to decide whether it was legal or not. They essentially got away with this for many years, but in 2006, Party Poker, which was one of the biggest gambling destinations of the online age, was forced to stop allowing US players to play on their site. Those players still had other options, but those options would also disappear in time.

With so many countries seemingly falling to these confusing laws, it was fair to say that many Canadians didn’t know where they stood with this new form of gambling. The gambling laws have never been straightforward in Canada, and when you add online gambling to the mix then you create even more confusion. However, that didn’t stop many Canadians from gambling and to date, the government has not had an issue with it.

In fact, it was thanks to online gambling that the tables turned. During the 1950s and 1960s, many Canadian gamblers dreamt of moving south of the border, living in the lights of Las Vegas and partaking in legal gambling. However, when Party Poker and then Pokerstars, Full Tilt and Ultimate Poker stopped allowing US players onboard, many of those US players considered a move to the Great North. It wasn’t just poker sites either, as online casinos had also been legal in Canada for some time, which made this country very appealing to US gamblers.

Online gambling does have a large question mark hanging over its head, mainly due to the rather confusing laws and to the fact that whilst the government can benefit from offline gambling, with plenty of tax fed into their coffers, they can’t benefit much from online gambling. As you would expect, this had led to reports that online gambling may be restricted in certain areas of Canada, with those areas then licensing their own form of online gambling and basically insisting that if residents of those regions want to gamble, they have to do it the way the local government want. This is rather unfair and will no doubt cause quite a stir, but it has yet to take place and as things stand, Canada is one of many countries in the world that embraces online gambling and allows all of its residents to partake in it.

If you can predict the future by looking at the patterns of the past then there is reason to suggest that Canada might ban online gambling, before succumbing to pressure from their own people and then relenting. But for now Canadians don’t need to worry about what might happen and need only focus on the now, because many citizens in many countries would love to live somewhere where gambling is widely available and where there are few restrictions placed on the way it’s done.

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