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New casino, bad idea

By Donna Sinclair

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, you can play blackjack, baccarat or one of 3,000 slot machines at the Montreal Casino on Ile-Notre- Dame. Six million people a year do so, pausing for refreshment at one of four restaurants and four bars.

But it's costly. According to Patricia Murphy, director of a United Church outreach ministry in Montreal, there's a worrisome link between suicide and compulsive gambling. Furthermore, a problem gambler costs society about $56,000 annually, she says, "and this doesn't measure the impact and costs to that person's family or employer."

Murphy is very interested in these things, because Loto- Quebec -- the gambling revenue arm of the provincial government -- plans to move the 15-year-old casino from the former Expo site on Ile Notre Dame to the Peel Basin, making it part of a $1.1-billion entertainment complex housing a concert hall, the Cirque du Soleil circus troupe, luxury hotels and a trade centre. That's right on the doorstep of Pointe St. Charles, where Murphy works at the United Church's inner-city outreach, St. Columba House. In sharp contrast to the proposed development, the Point, as it is affectionately known, is a community of 13,000 in which 50 percent of the families live below the poverty line.

St. Columba House has been an integral part of the community for 85 years. Now, along with 28 other members of the Action Watchdog coalition, it is fighting for an honest public debate on the casino issue. This is, Murphy admits, "a David-and-Goliath battle." The backers have a well-funded promotion office "for their PR campaign, whereas we don't have one red cent for ours."

Which doesn't stop Murphy and her cohorts from working very hard. The residents of the Point have a clear fear of what the casino's presence would bring: increased traffic, more pollution, rising housing costs, rising rents and rising crime -- which, according to Montreal police statistics from last year, was higher at the casino than anywhere else on the island of Montreal.

"Anytime we speak to people here, at public assemblies, going door-to-door, or people in the programs here, we really hear they don't want this in their community," says Murphy. But the area's lack of political clout makes it particularly vulnerable. "We don't think they would get away with it in another community."

So the Action Watchdog coalition -- women's groups, clinics, representatives from businesses and from the Chinese community that successfully fought to keep a casino out of Montreal's Chinatown -- meets at St. Columba House, organizing a march against the casino, offering interviews and producing a barrage of press releases. "We have managed to get equal attention from the media," she says. At the time of writing, they had also collected about 5,000 signatures petitioning against the casino, of which "most are either local people or United Church congregations all over Montreal."

Gambling is a hot-button issue for the United Church. At its September meeting, Montreal Presbytery endorsed the coalition's declaration against the relocation. Presbytery secretary Fred Braman wrote to Quebec Premier Jean Charest, detailing the church's objections. He copied the letter to other churches in the area, asking them to join "our denomination in requesting the holding of a parliamentary commission to fully vet these issues."

Citing the United Church's 1998 report, The Gambling Economy, Braman pointed out how gambling is now an industry, dominated by huge operations with unlimited international reach... and promoted by governments."

Governments are "addicted to gambling," Murphy agrees. "It's a cash cow. The trend is to expand." But she questions the assumption that if the government builds casinos, gamblers from afar will come. She cites statistics that show only 11 percent of Montreal's casino patrons come from outside the city.

Which means there's no guarantee the new complex would be worth the money sunk into it. "They become yesterday's entertainment centres," says Murphy. The current structure on Ile Notre Dame is " a huge building," she says, with "so much investment of public and private money. And they are just abandoning it."

The coalition also questions the assumption that new casinos generate employment. Although some jobs are created, others are lost when "local businesses are cannibalized by the gambling industry."

It would be good to have these matters understood before the casino is built. But as Braman explains in his letter, "decisions in favour of gambling expansion are usually undertaken without a social impact assessment."

Murphy is not about to let that happen. Even if the casino does get a go-ahead from Quebec's National Assembly, she says, "we'll be looking for a parliamentary commission."

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