The History of Gambling in Canada

Playing cards and other casino-themed products along with a the Canadian flag

Gambling in Canada is hugely popular. In 2021, the gambling industry in Canada is thought to have generated revenues in excess of US$12 billion, with over 18 million Canadians aged over 15 reporting that they gambled in one form or another that year. However, gambling wasn’t always so in demand. Indeed, Canada has had a somewhat chequered past with gambling as a hobby.

Slahal and Indigenous Gambling

Similar to the history of gambling in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, gambling in Canada has roots tracing back thousands of years. The first we hear about gambling in Canada is from written records from the country’s indigenous people which date back to well before Canada was “discovered”. The records indicate that the tribes of that era were quite fond of a simple game with bones called Slahal.

Slahal is a straightforward game, often played with the shin bones of deer. The premise is that two teams would face-off against each other, one with bones and the other without. The teams with the bones would swap which hands were holding the bones while loudly singing songs to distract their opponent whose job it was to guess which hands the bones were in. The game is so popular that indigenous tribes continue to play it to this very day.

A portrait of Richard III

Gambling is Made Illegal in Canada

Do you believe in the butterfly effect? That one small occurrence can result in a larger, more complex event? I hope so, as one change to British law in the 14th century would inadvertently result in gambling being illegal in Canada for hundreds of years!

Back in the 14th Century, Richard III was ruler of the realm in Britain. He had noticed that his archers had become increasingly prone to abandoning their posts to partake in a game of dice. Fearful that this could cause weakness in his defence, the monarch quickly moved to outlaw every type of dice game in Britain.

Over one hundred years later in 1497, the explorer John Cabot “discovered” Canada and claimed it for the British. As the law of the now deceased Richard III was still in effect in Britain, it too was enforced in Canada. Before long, all games of chance would be made illegal in Canada. However, as is often the case when prohibition of a vice is enforced, a booming underground casino industry soon developed.

Gambling is Legal in Canada…Eventually!

Canada would gain its independence from Britain in 1867, but there was certainly no clamour to make gambling immediately legal in Canada. In fact, gambling’s illegal status would be codified into Canadian Law with its addition to the Canadian Criminal Code in 1892. However, as the 20th century began so too did a slow march towards gambling becoming legal in Canada.

By 1910, the government came to realise the economic boon that could come with gambling. An amendment was made to the Criminal Code to allow pari-muteul betting, translated as “betting amongst ourselves”. This was a system of betting where all the bets are collected together. The government also permitted some games of luck, such as raffles and bingo, which were carried out in aid of charities and churches. By 1925, the loosening of the restrictions went further by allowing fairs and exhibitions to organise gambling events.

Gambling in Canada would remain much the same over the next forty years, but another amendment to the criminal code would usher in a sea of change. In 1969, lotteries were made legal. Local and national governments had come to realise the potential that lotteries had to help fund their projects. Five years later, a lottery was used by the government to help fund the Montreal Summer Olympics.

Allowing lotteries was not the end of the loosening of restrictions. In 1970, the ten regions of Canada were given the right to permit, licence and oversee gambling in their own territory. As 1985 came, so too did the almost total legalisation of gambling in Canada (only single-game sports betting was prohibited). In 1989, the first of many government-operated casinos, Crystal Casino, eventually opened in Winnipeg.

The Canadian Flag along with a mobile phone and computer screen being used for gambling

Online Gaming Takes Off!

As technology opened up new possibilities for online gambling, Canada established a world-first. In 1996, the Mohawk Territory Kahnawake Gaming Commission was set up. This was the first gaming commission in the world established for online betting. This is quite remarkable, considering gambling was almost entirely illegal in Canada just two decades prior.

This move to online gaming ushered in the new era of gambling in Canada, one that would eventually make the nation the eighth biggest gambling market in the world. High-speed internet and smartphones made online casinos ever more attractive, and in 2021 the government finally decriminalised single-game sports betting. Now, Canadians have a whole host of online and offline options to choose from when it comes visiting a casino. Indeed, there is none better than the lobby of where new members can enjoy a very attractive Welcome Package!

Tom Bogues has been working in the gambling industry since 2020. He has a keen interest in all aspects from industry, from the casino floor to industry regulations.

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