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Gambling on casinos

Casinos bring much-needed jobs and revenue to First Nations communities, but can also exacerbate social problems. Do the wins outweigh the losses?

By Richard Wright

United Church stalwart Donna Sinclair of North Bay, Ont., has a gambling problem, but it’s not what you’re thinking. More along the lines of a gambling dilemma. The United Church formally frowns on the activity, but gambling has been a boon to disadvantaged First Nations communities, as a friend recently explained to her. The friend, a First Nations woman, challenged the reasonableness of the church’s position. In her experience, good things — really good things — have come from the growth of government-sanctioned casinos on reserves. Employment, for example. Her own brother landed a job at a casino.

That got Sinclair thinking. In keeping with church philosophy on the matter, she doesn’t agree with gambling. But as a caring Christian, she is happy to see the disadvantaged lifted up. “I have a lot of sympathy for the church position that really tough things can happen when people get caught in a gambling addiction,” Sinclair says. “But I also know seniors who get on the bus here in North Bay and go down to Casino Rama and have a great day, and come home apparently unscathed.”

Not long after, Sinclair heard another positive story about gambling and First Nations people. Mike Jacobs, a financial consultant from Peterborough, Ont., and a member of the Curve Lake Ojibwa First Nation, told her about the good works his band had performed thanks to casino revenues.

The money comes from the slot machines and gaming tables of Casino Rama, the mother of all First Nations gambling ventures in the country. Casino Rama was set up in 1996 on the Chippewas of Rama reserve on the edge of Orillia, Ont. It is the only Native-run casino in the province, and its licence requires that net revenues from Rama be shared with Ontario’s 132 other First Nation bands. The Rama band gets the lion’s share: $23 million in 2009. The other bands divvied up $43 million according to a formula based on population.

Curve Lake is one of the recipients of “Rama Dollars,” as they’re referred to. The band did not immediately use the money sent their way but invested it until the sum had grown to more than $7 million. Curve Lake is now spending the annual interest on that principal, as well as the revenue that continues to arrive monthly from the casino.

Jacobs sits on the band committee that dispenses the money for community projects, such as rebuilding the cenotaph. “Now we have a beautiful monument for all the Curve Lake veterans,” he says. The powwow grounds were completely upgraded, and all homes on the reserve were retrofitted to save energy. Funding was also used to install porta-potties at outdoor recreation facilities, helping kids stay active. More germane to Sinclair’s dilemma, Jacobs points out with a laugh, might be the Curve Lake United Church Women’s application to the gaming revenue fund for money to buy new pew cushions and hymnbooks. The amount disbursed annually on such projects is between $200,000 and $300,000, according to gaming fund administrator Melanie Jacobs (no relation to Mike).

Mike Jacobs’s story, coupled with Sinclair’s friend’s, has the retired Observer writer scratching her head. Who in the church would quarrel with a steady job, energy-efficient homes, porta-potties or more comfortable pews? Does the good of gambling outweigh the bad?

Rev. Robert Gillingham thinks not. Gillingham is pastor of Rama United, ministering to the community that houses the big casino. He agrees that the casino has brought some tangible benefits to the area, but also a fair share of harm. “If the quality of life has gone up in some ways, in other ways it has certainly gone down,” he says. “The band may have more money, but privacy is gone, the community is divided, families have been broken up by disagreement over whether or not to participate. I have people say to me, ‘I wish that casino was never built.’”

The road to Rama passes by tiny wood-frame farmhouses, stands of maple trees and, in April, beige fields of corn stubble left behind by last year’s harvest. Rounding a curve, you are suddenly struck by a monumental pyramid of a building towering nine storeys above the maple bush and everything around it.

Casino Rama is a fantasy world. Plunked down on the Rama First Nation reserve, it is separated from the village by a vast parking lot with room for 2,241 cars and the 30 tour buses that arrive daily, brimming with gamers from Toronto. Between 8,000 and 10,000 people come here each day to gamble. The Rama reserve, by contrast, has a resident population of only 750.

Casino Rama media relations manager Jenna Hunter guides me through the lobby of the 286-room hotel that fronts the complex, past an artificial waterfall beside the Weirs, a restaurant named after the fishing traps that Aboriginal people of the region built long ago in nearby Lake Couchiching. Casino Rama is replete with such First Nations touches, Hunter points out: carpets decorated with a First Nations motif; First Nations art on the walls.

Even at 11 a.m., the games room, bigger than a hockey arena, is abuzz with activity. “That’s nothing,” says Hunter. “You should see it when it’s busy.” She notes that the Weirs and the nine other restaurants on site serve up more than 10,000 meals a day.

That statistic is greeted with a wry smile at the food bank housed inside Gillingham’s church, which is situated right across the road from the casino entrance. The bank hands out boxes of basic groceries to about 60 families from the reserve every month. If the casino were the cornucopia it was supposed to be, Gillingham asks, then why would the band need a food bank?

“The casino does not exist for you and me to make money,” he says. “It exists for the casino to make money, and the people who make casinos work well are the people who can least afford it.” These include members of the Rama band, Gillingham says. One parishioner came to him, guiltily, to say that he had won big the night before. He wanted Gillingham to hear it from him before word got around, out of respect for the minister’s views. The conversation over, the parishioner was walking away when he stopped and turned back. He said, “I might as well be honest with you. In the last year, I’ve dropped almost twice that amount.”

Sharon Stinson Henry, current chief of the Rama First Nation, concedes that there may be gambling addiction issues on the reserve, but she prefers to accentuate the positive. One of the biggest benefits of the casino has been the employment it has afforded, she says. Of 3,000 employees on the site, 700 self-identify as First Nations, and the casino boasts of being the biggest single-site employer of First Nations people in the country. “Before Casino Rama, there was vast poverty in our little community,” says Stinson Henry. “We had an 80 percent unemployment rate. Now it’s around 10 percent. Without work, you have no self-esteem.”

Gillingham counters that many of the jobs are being downgraded from full to part time as a cost-cutting measure. And Ted Williams, a band member and former chief, points out that the original promise of “quality employment” for First Nations employees has not been realized. The casino has only “one, maybe two [First Nations] people at a director level,” he observes. “After 14 years, that’s just not good enough.”

Stinson Henry’s list of benefits goes on: “We have a state-of-the-art fire hall, police station and EMS service. We have a refurbished community hall and the nicest ball field in the region,” she says. “With casino funds, we’ve been able to hire teachers, set up Ojibwa language classes and fund academic scholarships.” The band has even helped keep Rama United in good repair because the church Presbytery cannot, says Stinson Henry. “Where do they think that money came from?”

The lure of gambling money is a perennial problem for cash-strapped small churches, says Richard Chambers, who was the lead staffperson on gambling issues for the United Church’s General Council until leaving three years ago to direct the University of Toronto’s Multi-Faith Centre. Congregations would ask, “Should we have a charitable raffle because it’s going to raise money for this good cause? Should we organize a trip to the local casino for our seniors because it’s a good outing?” Chambers recalls.

In such cases, General Council can proffer advice but not a prescription. “We’re not in a position nationally to judge decisions made locally,” says senior program officer Rev. Bruce Gregersen, but the general recommendation “is to be cautious about revenue sources that depend on gambling income.”

The United Church’s longstanding position on gambling was best articulated in the 1990s, Chambers says. Provincial governments started to run lotteries and were offering churches money from the proceeds. Churches wondered if they should take it. General Council did a number of consultations, weighing potential benefits and hazards. “In any ethical dilemma, it’s not a question of saying, ‘This is right and that’s wrong,’” Chambers says. “You have two competing things that are both good. That’s what makes a dilemma of it.”

General Council concluded that for “the short-term gain from gambling, you’re going to have long-term pain,” says Chambers. When it comes to casinos in First Nations communities, however, the cost-benefit question may change. “Canadian civil society doesn’t really want to invest in Aboriginal communities,” he observes, “so when your only choice is a casino in your community or nothing, it really makes for a very difficult ethical situation.”

That very difficult situation landed on Rev. Lorne Calvert’s doorstep. A United Church minister, now principal of St. Andrew’s College in Saskatoon, Calvert spent many years as an NDP politician in Saskatchewan, including a stint as premier from 2001 to 2007.

Calvert has strong personal feelings about the role of gambling in society. “First, the very principle of gaming is that many must lose for one to win,” he says. Further, “there’s the potential for injury, in that some, and the numbers may not be large, but some may find themselves in addiction, with all the personal, family and neighbourhood problems that go with that.”

It is ironic, then, that it was during his years in politics that gambling became well established in the province. But politics, Calvert reminds us, is the art of the possible. Gambling of one sort or another has long been a part of the social fabric, he says. “Nobody — governments and the church included — is going to strongly put the case for prohibition, so if one accepts that there will be gaming, then one moves on to discuss how it will be structured, controlled and regulated, how its benefits will be maximized and its harmful effects mitigated,” he explains.

The first casino on reserve land in Canada set up shop in Saskatchewan on the White Bear reserve in the mid-1990s, while the NDP was in power. Calvert says the government negotiated hard to ensure that this casino and others that followed would provide employment and other benefits to First Nations communities in the province.

Part of the discussion revolved around the question of First Nations self-determination, “their right to choose for themselves, without white society dictating what is good for them. We haven’t been so good over the years in doing that,” says Calvert.

This concept adds yet another dimension to Sinclair’s dilemma. The church advocates for First Nations’ right to self-government, but when a band opts to sponsor a casino, what is the church to do? Should it bend on the issue of gambling? Calvert says no. “I’m still of the view that we should uphold those values that are undermined by gambling,” he says.

And what of those church members who see gambling as thoroughly integrated into society and perhaps even performing a socially useful function? Does the church risk appearing out of touch with a new reality? “The overall question that the church has raised around this issue still stands,” says Gregersen. “Is it good for society or not? By and large, most people would say it’s not good.” At the same time, the church recognizes that people must make individual choices.

So in the end, each of us has to decide for ourselves if gambling is worth the gamble. Donna Sinclair: back to you.



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